Question: I've been watching old McMillan and Wife episodes, and I was wondering if they ever delivered that baby she was carrying. I don't ever remember a baby on the show, just a pregnant wife. — Wendy M., Kannapolis, N.C.
Televisionary: They did indeed deliver the baby, though it was only mentioned briefly. In fact, as far as any substantive story developments, the little tyke pretty much didn't exist until the beginning of the 1976-77 season, when its disappearance was explained.
By that time, Susan Saint James had left amid a contract fight. So when the new season started, Sally McMillan and the baby were said to have died in a plane crash, maid Mildred was also gone (Nancy Walker had left for her own show on ABC) and husband Stewart McMillan (Rock Hudson), was paired with a new maid, Mildred's sister (Martha Raye). The show, known merely as McMillan, suffered without the Thin Man-esque interplay between the sparring spouses that had fed its popularity since its September 1971 debut, however. It was off the air for good by the fall of 1977.
You didn't ever have to be much of a detective to keep up with the McMillan mysteries (part of the successful NBC Mystery Movie rotation, it was never as clever as Columbo). Nor did you need much sleuthing ability to figure out Saint James had her problems with the show early on; you had only to read TV Guide in 1973.
First off, there was her husband, Tom Lucas, who served as the actress's make-up man on the set. Saint James wanted him to get an official credit on the show. Universal execs said no. "He does a beautiful job. He deserves a credit," she said at the time. "But the studio says to me, 'Baby, we'll give you Broadway and the Boardwalk, but not credit for a make-up man.'"
Near the end of the first season, Saint James became pregnant, but managed to hide it from her bosses for a while. After some time, of course, she had to tell them. "They cut off my salary that very day," she claimed. "I said, 'Hey, can't you at least pay me for the rest of the week? It's just two days.' So they said, 'Baby, you can have it.' Like it was a favor. Big deal."
You think that was indiscreet for a star talking to a reporter? It got worse. "I'm a veteran," she continued. "I'm one of the longest contract players Universal has had in years. I know my lines. They know they'll never have to bail me out of jail. I'm not going to throw a tantrum on the set. I'm the perfect person to be under contract. But Universal is not a good employer. I'm not happy."
For their part, Universal execs got their shots in, too. "She goes through life with her hair flying," said one, "and her mouth not far behind."
Now, those things may not seem too major, but when they're making it into the press early in a show's run, they say something.
As far as his work on the show went, the charismatic Hudson, who died in 1985 at age 59, had his hands full just trying to adjust to acting on the small screen after establishing himself as a successful presence in movie theaters. Not that you'd have known that when TV Guide interviewed him about the switch in 1972. "For television you work faster," he said then. "What would take 10 weeks for a feature takes 10 days for the tube. Otherwise, no difference."
Months later, he'd changed his tune. "There's a tremendous difference. Nobody told me. I had to find out the hard way, by myself," he admitted. "In television, you can't forget for a second that the result of what you're doing will only come out of a little box. So you've got to punch up your work, play your scenes bigger than life. On McMillan I can't underplay, as I would in a movie, or my character would get lost in the shuffle. On the wide screen, in a theater, the least movement — the flick of a finger, a half-smile, a wink — comes across like a headline. The same thing would register zero on the little box. Susan knows this because she's television-trained. But I'm an old dog learning new tricks."
Now, as for Anne in North Haledon, N.J., who wrote in to ask where Hudson's name came from: He was Roy Fitzgerald until he signed on with agent Henry Willson, who also named Tab Hunter and Rory Calhoun, among others. If Willson's name rings a bell, you may have seen it in my Medical Center column — he was responsible for Chad Everett's showbiz moniker, too. Matter of fact, trying to come up with the next Willson name was said to be a frequently played game at the Humphrey Bogart table in Romanoff's Beverly Hills restaurant. The favorite? Dungg Heep.