Question: What show had the maid named Hazel? — dyehard39, Reno, Nev.
Televisionary: You know, I realize I've proven myself to be up for just about any TV trivia-related challenge (well, the ones I can answer, anyway), but sometimes you people ask too much. Like the guy who wanted to know who the lead in The Bob Newhart Show was. Or the lady who asked where Miami Vice was set. Now this.
Ah, but I kid. Of course, the show with the maid named Hazel was called... Hazel. And it was based on Ted Key's Saturday Evening Post cartoons starring a maid named... Hazel. The series ran on NBC for four years beginning in September 1961 before jumping to CBS for a final year. In it, Shirley Booth played the strong-willed maid, who, though she worked for successful corporate lawyer George Baxter (Don DeFore) on NBC and then real estate agent Steve Baxter (Ray Fulmer) on CBS, was the boss of any home in which she served. Appropriately enough, Booth was the queen of the set, too.
Already celebrated on stage (three Tonys for roles in Goodbye, My Fancy; Come Back, Little Sheba and Time of the Cuckoo) and the big screen (an Oscar and recognition at Cannes for the film version of Sheba), Booth turned Key down when he offered her the role in a play he and a partner had written about the character. Plus she'd already told her agent not to bother her with any small-screen parts. Nevertheless, the pilot script was sent her way. "I got a call from my agent," Booth told TV Guide in 1961. "I told him, you know how I feel about TV. But when he said 'Hazel' I agreed to read it. He was so surprised he almost dropped the phone. Well, I did read it. And I agreed immediately to do it."
Why the change of heart? "Actors love good parts," Booth explained. "Hazel is a good part. She is a good human soul, honest and likable. The most important thing is that she's capable of honest anger — a good, strong, purging emotion — without being nasty about it. Instead, she substitutes a sense of humor — which is really a sense of good taste — and hence manages to get away with saying the things most of wish we'd said."
With her 800-pound-gorilla status and acting chops, Booth was a commanding presence on the screen — and a potentially intimidating one to her co-stars. Faced with a woman our magazine described as a "jolly, one-woman wrecking crew," DeFore was wise enough to embrace his second-banana, straight-man part, though he had to shed some blood to realize how to approach the job. "I went along for two shows cogitating this problem," he said. Then one day I cut off my finger in my home workshop. That kept me off the set for a while, and I was going around feeling like an idiot with my bandaged hand up in the air when the equation hit me! George Baxter, successful attorney, very sharp in a business deal, spends all day in the rational world of business with whose logic he is entirely able to cope. But at night he comes home to do mortal combat with the most illogical dame he's ever met!... A man in my position must accept the fact that this is really Dempsey vs. Tunney. Most people hated it when Tunney the methodical boxer whipped Dempsey the colorful slugger. They didn't want to see it. And when Tunney did it they were disappointed. So, George Baxter is forbidden to really win."
Bill Russell, Hazel's director, put it more succinctly, and paid DeFore quite a compliment in the process. "Don's too smart to be frustrated," he said. "Sure, he'd like to be the whole cheese. But he knows he can't be. The way to handle babies, dogs — and maids — is not to try to take the scene from them, but let them go and let yourself be mirrored in their performance."
Sound advice. And not a bad idea for a show, either, despite those who say the "maid" concept wouldn't hold up today for audiences who wouldn't relate to a servant comedy. To them I say, tell it to The Nanny.