Kene Holliday and Victor French, Carter Country

Question: Do you remember a show with, I think, the guy from Highway to Heaven and a black actor that was sort of a comedy version of In the Heat of the Night? It's driving me nuts.


Answer: Yes.

Aaaah, you didn't really think I was gonna stop at being a wiseacre and answer your question with one word, did you? You'll never so easily curb my urge to babble, Joon.

Funny you use the word "nuts," since the show in question, ABC's Carter Country, bore the name of former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time it debuted in September 1977. As you say, it bore a strong resemblance to In the Heat of the Night, which 10 years later would be a hit TV series itself.

Carter Country starred Victor French (Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven) as small-town Georgia police chief Roy Mobey and Kene Holliday as his deputy, Sgt. Curtis Baker. Like Heat, Carter Country made much of the contrast between white redneck Mobey and African-American Baker, who'd learned higher-level policing techniques in New York City... only this show played it for laughs (or tried to).

On its face, the show had a lot going for it when it kicked off. It was ABC programming legend Fred Silverman who came up with the idea, and All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude and Good Times alum Bud Yorkin who made it happen. With that kind of pedigree, plus a powerful exec willing to run offense for his baby, its chances looked good. Particularly when Silverman really wanted it to work.

Douglas Arango, one of the writers who helped create the show, got a taste of how much Silverman wanted success when he showed up early to the first read-through and found a stranger already sitting there. "You here to read for the extras parts?" he asked. "I'm Fred Silverman," the stranger replied. "And this will give you an idea of how on top of things I'm going to be."

Not only did it have the power of a big suit behind it, but Carter Country also sported the same kinds of oddballs and eccentrics — behind and in front of the camera — that made hits of shows like Barney Miller and, later, Night Court and Northern Exposure. Take Guich Koock (pronounced "Geech Cook"), who played deputy Harley Puckett. An actor who came to Hollywood to enter a singing-cowboy contest (he came in second), he owned his own town, called Luckenbach (pop. 3), in Texas' Gillespie County; Luckenbach was the only place to officially celebrate the annual arrival of a small wasp called a "mud dauber." Asked where his name came from, Koock explained that his daddy raised dogs and had already given out all the good ones. (Before you assume the man was playing it straight and was an imbecile, you should know he also had an M.A. in American Indian folklore from Texas A&M.)

There was Richard Paul, who excelled at playing oily Southern glad-handers even though he was from South Eagle Rock (near Pasadena), Calif., had an M.A. in psychology himself, and was a licensed marriage counselor. And then there was French, who'd graduated from playing villains earlier in his career to playing the lovable Mr. Edwards on Little House — and that was before tackling comedy. To hear him tell it, he was lucky to get the part. "Mike Landon was the first to see the kindly side of me," he said. "But comedy? Bless Bud Yorkin. He could even see through my poor cold reading — uh, I'm not a good cold reader. It's against my process as an actor."

That it might've been, but French pulled it off respectably. Unfortunately, though, the show itself didn't last long, and it didn't make a lasting impression (as you demonstrate by not even remembering its title). Like Carter's presidency, Carter Country had all the makings of a hit, but it sputtered much of the way and finally left the air just shy of two years after it launched, in August 1979. But unlike Carter, who's earned far more respect as an elder statesman and father of Habitat for Humanity than he ever did in the White House, Carter Country has pretty much faded into oblivion. As far as I can remember, yours is the first question I've ever gotten about it.