The Forgotten TV Roles of 15 Hollywood Legends


Last week, my heroes at Shout Factory unleashed The Marx Brothers TV Collection , a comprehensive, three-disc set that’s like Christmas come early for us “Marxists.” Among its many pleasures — variety show guest shots, dramatic turns on anthology series, appearances on celebrity golf and poker shows (yes, they had those back then) — is the set’s crown jewel: the obscure, final appearance of the three brothers together, on an episode of The General Electric Theater. Inspired by this find, we take a look at some of the other long-lost or long-forgotten television turns by Hollywood legends.

The Marx Brothers in The Incredible Jewel Robbery

When this episode of the GE Theater anthology series (hosted by Ronald Reagan!) aired in 1959, the Marx Brothers’ final film as a team, Love Happy, was a good decade in the rearview, and the boys certainly look their age. But it’s a pretty good little comedy, done almost entirely without dialogue, with some inspired slapstick and a clever heist scheme at its center. And it’s a joy to see the brothers up to their old tricks — particularly Harpo, who unsurprisingly flourishes in the pantomime style, pulling “Gookies,” blowing smoke bubbles, and, in the climactic titular sequence, imitating Groucho (shades of Duck Soup). It’s mostly Harpo and Chico’s show, and was advertised as such; Groucho’s cameo appearance at the end had to be kept an unadvertised secret, due to his quiz show You Bet Your Life airing on a rival network. When he lopes in at the end, joining his brothers and mouthing the show’s only line of dialogue (“We won’t talk until we see our lawyer!”), it’s just like old times.

Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Henry Fonda in The Petrified Forest

When Lauren Bacall died last week, most of the writing about her onscreen relationship with Humphrey Bogart focused on their four big-screen collaborations (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo). But they shared the (small) screen one more time: in a 1955 production of The Petrified Forest for the prestigious anthology series Producers’ Showcase. The role of Duke Mantee, a gangster who takes over a roadside diner and holds its patrons hostage, had been an important one for Bogie; he originated the role on Broadway in 1935, his first great success, and reprised it for Warner Brothers’ film version the following year, which marked his big-screen breakthrough.

To play the role again for television, Bogie was paid $50,000, at that time the biggest check ever written to a performer for a single television performance. And he got to bring along Bacall, who took over the role of the diner owner’s daughter Gabrielle. Henry Fonda stepped into Leslie Howard’s role of the intellectual who battles wits with Bogie’s Mantee, but according to the Bootleg Files’ Phil Hall, the production was a washout; Bacall was too sophisticated to play the naïve Gabrielle, and Bogart too old and ill to make a convincingly menacing Mantee (he would die two years later). The color production was only preserved on a shoddy black-and-white kinescope, available on YouTube and at the Paley Centers for Media in New York and Los Angeles.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Divorce His, Divorce Hers

Like Bogie and Bacall, Liz and Dick were equally renowned for their on- and off-screen chemistry; like Bogie and Bacall, their many theatrical pairings were also supplemented by a forgotten TV-movie. In this case, it was the 1973 effort Divorce His, Divorce Hers, a two-part event that looked at a couple’s split once from his point of view, and then again from hers. It’s a good gimmick (since replicated for films like He Said, She Said and the upcoming Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), and curious viewers tuned in to guess at where the line between reality and fiction fell. “In concept, this is a fine idea for a film,” writes Phil Hall, again for the Bootleg Files. “Unfortunately, nobody bothered to make a film of the concept. What results is a minor mess.” Reviews were brutal (The New York Times responded to the title with succinct snark: “Mistake Theirs”) and the film disappeared, though it still pops up occasionally on streaming sites and in public domain dollar DVD bins.

Henry Fonda and Myrna Loy in Summer Solstice

Most viewers think of On Golden Pond as Henry Fonda’s last film, and for good reason; it was a fitting swan song, culminating with a long-overdue Best Actor Oscar (accepted by daughter Jane, as he was too ill to attend the 1982 ceremony). But he made one more movie afterwards, a TV movie called Summer Solstice, shot immediately after On Golden Pond in nearby Cape Cod. His co-star, for the first time, was another Hollywood legend: the great Myrna Loy, in what also turned out to be her last film. The hour-long production featured the pair as a couple celebrating their 50th anniversary on the Cape, where they first fell in love; Stephen Collins and Lindsay Crouse played their younger counterparts. HBO Video later released the film on VHS, but it’s never made its way to DVD.

Marlon Brando in Roots: The Next Generations

After his comeback following the powerful double-play of The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris in 1972, Marlon Brando’s choices became increasingly inexplicable (and would remain so for the rest of his career). But it wasn’t hard to guess why he offered himself up to the makers of this 1979 miniseries, in spite of the fact that he hadn’t acted for television since 1955: his long-held commitment to social justice issues. Roots had been a sensation in 1977, a vital piece of history and must-see television, and demand was high for a sequel. But in spite of a budget nearly triple the original’s, the sequel is barely remembered now as more than a footnote — though Brando’s brief appearance as American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell won him an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor.

Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love II

The title sounds like a pitch from the opening of The Player, alongside The Graduate Part II, but it’s a real thing — back in 1996, Poitier reprised the role of inspirational teacher Mark Thackeray from his 1967 classic for CBS, under the direction of Peter Bogdanovich. It was the Last Picture Show director’s first made-for-TV work, but not Poitier’s; in fact, oddly, television has been his main showcase over the past 20 years, during which he appeared in only one theatrical release (1997’s The Jackal), but seven made-for-TV movies.

Katharine Hepburn in This Can’t Be Love

Like Poitier, Hepburn also made far more small-screen than big-screen appearances in her later years — five TV movies between 1986 and 1994, with only one theatrical release in the same period. The last of those, One Christmas, is readily available on DVD, but the penultimate title, This Can’t Be Love, is impossible to track down. And that’s a shame; not only does it pair Hepburn with Anthony Quinn, but it features Jason Bateman (above) in a supporting role.

Bette Davis in As Summers Die

The great Bette Davis also did her fair share of TV work in her later years — a comment, if anything, on how infrequently Hollywood knows what to do with Women of a Certain Age, even titans like Hepburn and Davis. She did nine TV movies in the last decade of her life; the final one, HBO’s As Summers Die, not only features Davis (following multiple strokes and double mastectomy), but Jamie Lee Curtis, Scott Glenn, Bruce McGill, and Superfly himself, Ron O’Neal. It was released on VHS but remains unavailable on DVD or streaming formats.

James Stewart in Harvey

Yes, everyone remembers James Stewart playing Edward P. Dowd in the 1950 film adaptation of Mary Chase’s beloved play Harvey. But Stewart returned to the role 22 years later, for the recurring TV movie series Hallmark Hall of Fame. Stewart and Helen Hayes (in the role of sister Veta Louise Simmons) had appeared in the 1970 Broadway revival; the Hallmark production’s supporting players included such ‘70s favorites as Madeline Kahn, Richard Mulligan, and Fred Gwynne. As delicious as a Stewart-Kahn pairing sounds, the production was never released on home video (presumably due to confusion with the original), though you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube.

Audrey Hepburn in Love Among Thieves

This 1987 caper would mark Hepburn’s final starring role (she appeared briefly in Spielberg’s Always two years later, her last film appearance of any kind), and her first TV movie, starring opposite Robert Wagner as a baroness who steals three Fabregé eggs as part of a ransom payoff. A noteworthy appearance in a period of semi-retirement for the icon (she spent most of her time working for UNICEF, and reportedly donated her salary for the film to the organization), the forgotten film finally received some attention with a long-overdue DVD release, via Warner Archives, in 2009.