URBAN TV LEGEND: Webster was created by simply adding Emmanuel Lewis to a new existing sitcom.
Webster was a popular television comedy that ran for six seasons from 1983-1989, four of them on ABC and then the last two in first-run distribution. Starring a newlywed couple, recently retired NFL star George Papadopolis (Alex Karras) and socialite (and consumer advocate) Katherine (Susan Clark), who discover that George’s best friend (and former teammate) NFL) died and left his young son. in the care of George (and, indirectly, of Katherine). The son, Webster (Emmanuel Lewis), is African-American, so the newlyweds are suddenly not just adjusting to being married (George is specifically adjusting to becoming an announcer as his acting career is over and Katherine is specifically adjusting to doing housework for the first time in her privileged life), but now they are raising a child together.
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The show drew a bit of mockery at the time for being too similar to the concept of the hit series, Diff’Rent Strokes, where a wealthy widower (Conrad Bain) adopts orphaned African-American children (Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman). ) from your former housekeeper. In addition to the similar adoption story angle, the comparisons were based on the similarities between Lewis and Coleman, adorable and diminutive actors.
However, the fascinating thing about Webster is that the show was originally supposed to not involve Webster at all! Yes, Webster essentially “crashed” a comedy starring Karras and Clark and the result was Webster.
Backing things up a bit, you need to understand where Alex Karras and Susan Clark were in their lives when Webster debuted. Clark was born in Canada and moved to England in the 1960s, where she began working as an actress. She was “discovered” and then hired by Universal Studios. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, there was what was called a “Studio System”, where actors would be hired by specific studios, who would then control said actor’s career for most of his career. Since the studio had a vested interest in his success, the studio would make sure to find work for the actor, but as time went on, the studio was often disinterested in finding GOOD roles for the actor, as they had a completely different group. of newer stars to work with, so you’d have all these instances of actors going from leads to character actors just because there was nothing else they could do since they signed on with the studio.
In the 1960s, the studio system all but disappeared, with one notable exception: Universal still had studio players until the early 1980s and Susan Clark was one of them, signing in 1967. And with Clark, we saw exactly the right thing to do. The same sort of thing we saw with other actors of her kind, Universal pushed her early (she received starring roles opposite Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff 1968, opposite Robert Redford in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here in 1969 and opposite Burt Lancaster in Valdez Is Coming in 1971, in addition to playing one of the killers in one of the first episodes of Universal’s Columbo television series), but by the mid-1970s, the film roles had dried up (Clark later mentioned that He had been told by an agent that the whole Universal approach was a cue, say 100 actors and if only one REALLY goes big, that pays for the other 100, and once they figured you wouldn’t do it big, let were worrying so much).
However, Universal landed Clark two prominent television roles in the mid-1970s. In 1976, he ended his 10-year contract with Universal with an Emmy Award-nominated performance in a television miniseries about Amelia Earhart, but a year before, she had WON an Emmy starring in the TV movie Babe as the famous athlete, Babe Didrikson. Zaharias. Playing her husband, George Zaharias, was a former NFL star, Alex Karras, who was a four-time Pro-Bowler over the course of his thirteen-year career from 1958 to 1970. Once he ended up in soccer , Began acting, garnering a lot of attention as the simple-minded brute, Mongo, in 1974’s Blazing Saddles.
Karras and Clark began dating after working together on Babe and in 1978, with Clark now a free agent, they formed their own production company, Georgian Bay Ltd. and specifically looked for projects that they could star in together. Clark became pregnant with their daughter in 1979 and they married shortly after.
Interestingly, one of the TV movies they made during this period was called Jimmy B. & André and it was based on a true story about one of Karras’s friends, a bartender, who ended up adopting an African-American son he met. living on the street while working at his bar. That probably played a big part in Webster’s plot later on.
Anyway, Clark and Karras decided to create a 1983 sitcom about their life together, called Another Ballgame, about a retired NFL player who marries a socialite and the trouble they had to figure things out. The pilot was serialized on ABC.
But then something strange happened. In 1982, Burger King started a popular series of commercials starring Emmanuel Lewis …
Lewis started doing more commercials and soon, he had a big enough personality, based only on his commercial work, that he was a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where delicate…
ABC executives quickly signed him to a production contract. It was a lot like how Mr. T was so great that NBC quickly tried to work with him on whatever project they could, which became The A-Team (Mr. T was so famous pre-A-Team that he even had his own catch phrase, one that I noticed that somehow he never used ON The A-Team).
Mr. T’s deal, however, happened BEFORE the pilot season, while Lewis came to ABC’s attention AFTER the 1983 pilot season, so they would have to wait for the 1984-85 TV season to get him his own program … unless of course they could just incorporate it into one of the programs they already had! So they proposed to Clark and Karras that Lewis work on Another Ball Game and that it be about newlyweds adopting a child.
Clark and Karras agreed, as they thought it was a good idea, but there was soon a conflict, as their take on the show was that it would be about them AND Lewis, while ABC thought more of him as a lead vehicle for Lewis. That came down to a big fight over whether the show would be Clark and Karras’s choice of Then Came You or Webster’s ABC preference. Since Clark and Karras were producing the show with Paramount Television, they had a lot to say, but were shocked when ABC turned them down and said, “No, it’s Webster. Try it.”
As a result, Webster’s first season was filled with conflicts between Karras and Clark and the other producers over the direction of the show, who naturally all wanted to focus on Lewis. Poor Lewis was miserable because he felt that all the fights were his fault. Eventually though, things settled down and everything settled and the show continued through six seasons.
Still, it’s one of the weirdest starts to a sitcom!
The legend is …
I think thanks to my friend Ray as I think he told me I should write about this. I had it as a possibility, but his mentioning it made me push him to a definitive position.
Be sure to check my archive of tv legends revealed to learn more urban legends about the world of television.
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