SAMUEL PROCTOR: We had been in negotiations with Fannie Flagg to create a show for CBS for several months. We finally put something together that clicked with the network and CBS agreed to give us a 13-episode run. I knew that there was a way to get Frankie involved, so I had Fannie and Frankie meet. I was happy to see the two of them hit it off immediately.
FANNIE FLAGG, AUTHOR/COMEDIENNE/FREQUENT MATCH GAME PANELIST: I could tell immediately that Frankie was an old soul. I liked that about him. He also had the ability to make people laugh even when he was saying something completely serious. To make a modern parallel, Frankie was kind of like the absolute opposite of Tracy Morgan.
FRANK: I had known of Fannie from her sweaters on Match Game. I may have been eight, but I knew how a sweater could be filled out even back then. She was a great person, too. I was happy to work with her.
The show had Fannie and veteran actor Earl Holliman playing the characters of Fannie and Tuck, a married couple with three children living in the rural south.
SAMUEL PROCTOR: The show was called Who Took the Gravy? It was originally called The Whitman Family, and then Fannie, but the title came from a joke that we had in the pilot. It became a running joke through the first seven or eight episodes.
SCOTT KANNBERG, HEAD WRITER, WHO TOOK THE GRAVY? We didn’t even have the joke said at the dinner table all of the time. It became a contest between the writing staff as to the weirdest place we could have the line said. We had one episode where Earl said it while on his fishing boat. It became a popular catchphrase for a brief period of time.
There were two original ideas that came from the show. The first one was that Flagg and Holliman both played welders.
SCOTT KANNBERG: I know that having Fannie Flagg playing a welder was a bit unusual, but both of my parents were welders, so it kind of became homage to them.
SAMUEL PROCTOR: I didn’t care what they did for a living, as long as the jokes were funny. But you’d be surprised as to how many good welding jokes can be written.
SCOTT KANNBERG: Fannie also liked the welding idea…it was a very positive character for the women’s liberation movement.
The second original idea that came from the show originated from Frank’s character, Jeffrey, who was the youngest son. Jeffrey loses the use of his legs after being hit by lightning, and in the course of his electrocution, he becomes a Catholic in an all-Baptist family.
SCOTT KANNBERG: It was Frankie’s idea, really. We were trying to find a way to make the wheelchair idea work, because the network wanted the wheelchair, you know. They were dead-set on it. So Frankie’s sitting there listening to the writing staff toss around ideas, and he says, “What if I was hit by lightning? That happens in the South a lot, doesn’t it?” It was genius.
FRANK: That was my idea, it’s true. Then one of the other writers says, “What if the accident turns him into a Catholic, and the rest of the family was Baptist?” I had been meeting with Father McGuinn for my religious studies – the studio chaplain had to be all-denominational, you know – so I had a vibe as to what Catholics were like. I remember my favorite line on the show was based on that. In the pilot, my brother, Teddy – played by Arthur Stanville, he was great – he says to me, “So, Catholic boy, what are you giving up for Lent?” I respond, “Since I have to go into the bathroom after you, I guess I’m giving up hope.” There was a lot of subtext in that character. Deeper than your average third-grader. Even the bathroom jokes were smart.
Upon completion of the pilot, CBS knew that they had something that would interest a broad audience.
BENJAMIN WILKERSON, NETWORK EXECUTIVE, CBS: The show was very Middle America, but it was smart, too, and it also had a heart. I guess it was a lot like M.A.S.H. in that way, except for the whole Korean War and liberal agenda thing. Frank was a big part of it, too. We thought about giving him his own catchphrase, something that wasn’t “Who took the gravy?” and would make him stand out. We tried, “Hey, I’m crippled, what do you expect?” for a few episodes, but that caused some issues.
That was not the only controversy that the show caused. Jason Pearlman and Jon-Asher Carlson, two actors from the Jarrett Thibodeaux School of Acting for Handicapped Children and the protestors who pelted Frank with rocks and garbage upon his entrance to the Rudolph Simoneaux Acting School, decided to continue their protest of a non-handicapped actor playing a handicapped person by appearing on television and radio talk shows and denouncing Frank. Unfortunately for Pearlman and Carlson, the protests did not work.
LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: Here’s the one thing that Frankie had that not many people ever have: you’re not gonna out-martyr him. You had two kids who were in wheelchairs, for crying out loud, and who got the sympathy? Francis, that’s who. He understood the media better than any other child actor I worked with, bar none. I remember in one television interview that he did during the protests where suggested the sad music that should play in the background during his most emotional part. It got both the reporter and the producer of the story nominations for a local Emmy.
SAMUEL PROCTOR: I believe the protests actually helped out the ratings the first two weeks. You know what they say, any publicity helps.
FRANK: And when the news came out on that Carlson kid came out, well, that’s when it all ended.
JASON PEARLMAN, FORMER CO-CHAIR OF HANDICAPPED ACTORS FOR HANDICAPPED PARTS: I had no idea that Jon-Asher was faking his own affliction, as well. He was a really good actor, I guess. It really took the steam out of our sails from that point.
JARRETT THIBODEAUX: It forced me to put in a strict screening process to get into my class. That actually helped my business, though, because any time you put restrictions to admittance to anything in Los Angeles, everybody wants in to your place.
Jon-Asher Carlson could not be reached for comment. It is rumored that he is currently working at a cannery outside of Juneau, Alaska.
BENJAMIN WILKERSON: After the first three weeks of airing, we had a solid hit, hovering around the teens in the ratings and winning its time slot. Frank was becoming a bit of a breakout star, too. We had to get him out there on the circuit, strike while the iron was hot.
FRANK: I appeared on a lot of talk shows, Carson, Merv. I appeared on Battle of the Network Stars, too. I finished third in the Simon Says competition, narrowly losing out to Valerie Bertinelli and Kristy McNichol. They were both tough competitors. But it was a very strenuous time for me, too. I was doing the show, having my religious studies with the chaplain and I was being tutored in my normal schoolwork. My tutor, he was an interesting guy, though.
PATSY MCARDLE, FRANK’S TUTOR: Father McGuinn was the one that got me together with Frankie. Because of all of the stress that Frankie was going through, I had to keep things light and fun. Don’t overwhelm the lad. But he was a good kid, very curious.
FRANK: Patsy had a really thick Irish brogue, so the first few times that we met I couldn’t understand a thing he said. But since we both had issues with the way we spoke, it made us pretty tight. I remember he also had a tattoo across his knuckles that said “BLOOD MONEY”. That scared me a bit.
PATSY MCARDLE: I got that tattoo while I was in prison. It was part of a joke that me and the lads in cell block “H” had. I did three years in Chino for hijacking a truck of cigarettes near the Nevada border. I had gotten the job through CBS’ prison outreach program and Father McGuinn. I was very honest with Frankie about my past, and he was very understandable about my transgressions.
FRANK: My father – well, my second father – had taught me about forgiveness, so I followed his path. Besides, Patsy was a riot. He taught me math by going to the races at Hollywood Park.
PATSY MCARDLE: If a kid can learn how to box a trifecta, he can handle his own in math. Frankie had good instincts about the ponies. He won me two grand one time.
FRANK: I was going through a good run in my life. I just brought Patsy along for the ride.
With the sudden fame came a lot of attention from members of the opposite sex.
LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: As soon as a month after the show premiered, Frankie was getting up to fifty fan letters a day, from all across the country. He wasn’t quite a teen, yet, but he had a heartthrob quality that could not be denied. People warmed up to him quickly.
FRANK: I still have one of my first fan letters. I framed it, and it’s up on my wall in my home office. It let’s me remember my past, but it also keeps me centered, too.
You are my favorite person on the T.V. I like your funny voice. Why is your voice like that? It is so funny.
You seem to be real nice. I think that if we met we would be good friends. We would laugh all of the time. HA HA HA HA HA! I like to say funny things.
I would like to take you in your wheelchair and (section blacked out by censor)
If you are ever in Alabama please come and visit. I promise to be good. My doctor says I need to take my pills now.
I am 43 years old.
P.S. Lock all of the doors!!!! THE WOLVES ARE COMING!!!! THE WOLVES ARE COMING!!!!
(This letter was approved for delivery by the St. Andrew’s Mental Health Center. Any sections that are censored out of the letter are the decision of St. Andrew’s and its staff. The letter was placed in the envelope by an authorized staff member and sealed for the protection of the patient.)
After the fifth week of airing, Who Took the Gravy? was guaranteed a second season by the network. It was also promised that Frank would be a larger focus on the show, which meant that one of the other characters would be written out of storylines. The producers of the show decided to cut ties with the character of the middle sister, Annabelle, who was played by a then-12-year old Julia Roberts.
SCOTT KANNBERG: The character of Annabelle was a bit of a troublemaker, so we had her sent to boarding school. We had some issues with a rural, middle class family being able to afford sending their kid off to a boarding school, but, hey, it’s television. You stretch the truth. It was originally agreed upon that she would reappear in a few episodes throughout the next season, but that didn’t work out.
SAMUEL PROCTOR: In hindsight, yes, our instincts were off a bit there. But you go with a decision and you stick with it. Frankie was the way to go. I still stand behind that. I do. Really.
JULIA ROBERTS, ACADEMY AWARD®-WINNING ACTRESS: Sure, it hurt at first. But I can’t really complain about how things worked out, can I?
LEONARD “BUCK” FENITA: It wasn’t that we were trying to get Julia off of the show. We were just trying to get Frankie more air time. It was an unfortunate consequence from our negotiations. Frankie had nothing to do with it.
SCOTT KANNBERG: There was a great deal of chemistry between Frank and Arthur Stanville, sort of an Abbott and Costello thing that we couldn’t interrupt. We didn’t have that with Julia’s character. Maybe none of us could write young women…I don’t know. To tell you the truth, if you would’ve asked me at the time of the show which one would’ve been the biggest long-term star of the three, Arthur would’ve been my choice. But then he just got so fascinated with the insurance racket…shows you what I know.
ARTHUR STANVILLE: My main focus is long-term life insurance. I sell home and auto insurance, as well, but long-term life, that’s where the gravy train really rolls in – no pun intended. I had some thrills acting, but there’s nothing more satisfying than giving a family the assurance that they won’t have to worry about their children’s future if something goes wrong. Face it - on your deathbed, are you more likely to say that you really enjoyed an actor’s performance on a television show, or that you protected your family with a flexible premium annuity plan? I don’t think that I have to answer that question, sunshine.
Who Took the Gravy? rose steadily in the ratings until it was considered to be a legitimate hit by the end of its first season. Film offers began to trickle in, but Frank was beginning to fear that he was being typecast. His fears were best expressed in an interview that he did with Esquire for Young Men magazine in the summer of 1980.
(To see Chapter 6, click here)
(To see Chapter 6, click here)