“Hail to the Chief”: In 1985, TV’s first female President of the United States was a short-lived sitcom flop

By on November 16, 2016

As surely everyone knows by now, American voters have yet to elect a woman President of the United States, but there have been a handful of them in the movies and on TV, including a short-lived 1985 sitcom called “Hail to the Chief,” which was voted out of TV office after just seven episodes were aired.

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The show — created by Susan Harris, the legendary creator/writer/producer of the popular 70s sitcom “Soap,” the ABC comedy that ran from 1977 to 1981 — wasn’t the first to depict a female Commander in Chief, but in 1985 it was still kind of a kind of far-fetched topic (sadly, seems like it still is).

It may be all but forgotten now, but since we’ve been thinking about this for the past week, we think “Hail to the Chief,” even though it’s considered a flop, still deserves another look.

The episode we’re featuring here — Episode 4 — originally aired on April 30, 1985, and it was the first in the series not written by the show’s creator (Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan wrote the teleplay, based on a story conceived by two of the show’s producers, Tony Thomas and Paul Junger Witt). It was directed by J.D. Lobue, who directed every episode of the series.

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Susan Harris

Harris grew up in an upper middle-class household in Mount Vernon, in New York’s suburban Westchester County. The daughter of an an accountant and a homemaker, she enjoyed high school, got mostly A’s and enjoyed being a cheerleader. After graduation, she went on to study English Lit at Cornell and later NYU, but never earned a degree.

She met an actor named Berkeley Harris and moved to L.A. with him so he could focus on his career. They got married in 1965, had a kid a few years later, and then two years after that they got divorced, and suddenly she found herself sitting at home in L.A., watching a lot of television and she began thinking to herself, “I can write better than that crap.”

Unlike most wannabe writers in L.A. who say the same thing, she actually could write better than most, and she proved it, writing a television script for a short-lived NBC TV series called “Then Came Bronson”.

The 1969 show — starring Michael Parks — was about a newspaper reporter who, after the suicide of his best friend, began to contemplate the meaning of his life. He quits his job, gives away his possessions and then rides around on his dead friend’s motorcycle, helping people. A friend got Harris’s spec script to a producer, who purchased it for $4500, which is not bad for a first attempt at TV writing.

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The work came steadily after that. She wrote teleplays for “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” “Love, American Style,”and “The Odd Couple,”, but her real flowering as a writer came with a sitcom produced by Norman Lear’s Tandem productions, a spinoff of his great CBS show “All in the Family,” called “Maude.”

The show — starring Bea Arthur as Maude Finlay, who was Edith Bunker’s cousin hailing from Harris’s native Westchester County — tackled all kinds of taboo subjects that network TV shows hadn’t yet attempted to voice opinions about, like Maude getting pregnant (in her late forties), having an abortion, her husband getting a vasectomy and they also dealt with Maude’s menopause (with hot flashes in full, living color).

Her excellent writing led to an opportunity to go into producing, a natural progression, but the first show she produced — a short-lived forgotten sitcom called “Fay” about a woman in her fifties (played by the great Lee Grant) who divorces her husband of 24 years after she catches him cheating on her — was dropped from NBC’s schedule the same week that they’d promised Harris they were going to move it to a new time slot (it was getting good reviews, but was also getting creamed in the ratings by CBS’s “The Waltons”).

Nine episodes were filmed but only three had aired in the fall of 1975 before it was cancelled.

Harris had really cared about “Fay” — it was her first, after all, her baby — but afterwards told herself she wouldn’t let herself get too attached to another show she worked on, realizing that they could get snatched away from her without warning.

Harris even talked about the experience in a PBS documentary airing just a few months later, saying she was working on a play and was hoping to “write her way out of television.”

Network television, however, wasn’t quite ready to lose her to the theatrical world, and so the ascendant ABC network stepped forward two years later and asked her to develop a new sitcom for them.

Harris — along with her partner/co-producer Paul Junger Witt (they married in 1983) — came up with the idea for a prime-time parody of daytime soap operas called “Soap,” which went on to become one of the beloved situation comedies of the 70s, even though there was great pressure applied to the network that produced the show, ABC, even before the first episode had aired.

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That’s because pious religious groups (mostly Catholics and Baptists), right-wing bigots and other so-called defenders of liberty had tried to have the series cancelled even before they’d seen any of it because they’d read that the outrageous show was going to be scandalous.

Thirty thousand letters flooded into ABC’s offices, demanding that the show be dropped from their fall schedule before audiences were even given the opportunity to voice their own opinions.

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The cleverly-interwoven “Soap” narrative storylines concerned two Connecticut families — the rich, upper-class Tates and the lower-class, blue collar Campbells — connected by two sisters and an impending marriage, but Harris also managed to include themes that touched upon homosexuality (Billy Crystal’s character Jodie Dallas stirred up a lot of anger among uptight ABC viewers), as well as impotence, incest, premarital sex, adultery, racial stereotyping, satanism, transexualism and transvestitism.

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Despite the pre-season publicity about the show and fact that some ABC affiliates refused to air it (some pushed it to a late-night time-slot, while other stations refused to air it at all) and seven major advertisers dropped their sponsorship of “Soap,” it went on to become one of the highest-rated shows of the 1977-’78 TV season, finishing at #13 on the Nielsen ratings. Harris herself even appeared onscreen in several episodes as a prostitute named Babette.

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By now a television auteur and established writer/creator, Harris followed the example of her producer mentor Norman Lear and developed a spin-off TV series based on a black character from “Soap,” who was the chief cook for the Tates (Lear’s show, “The Jeffersons,” aired even longer than “All in the Family” did).

For “Benson,” the title character — played by actor Robert Guillaume — takes a new job running the household of a governor, quickly establishing himself as the real power behind the man in charge of the state’s government.

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The popular series“Benson” lasted even longer than “Soap” did, and by now the major networks were giving Harris and her producing partners — Paul Witt and Tony Thomas — the opportunity to create new shows, hoping they would have the same kind of success that ABC had with two back-to-back successes.

The first of these early 80s sitcoms created by Harris — “I’m A Big Girl Now” — starred actress Diane Canova (she’d been on “Soap”) as a divorced mom whose daughter moves in with her father. The 1980-’81 sitcom failed to get renewed, and neither did her next show, 1982’s “It Takes Two”, starring Patty Duke and Richard Crenna as a married lawyer/doctor couple dealing with Yuppie angst.

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For her next network sitcom opportunity, Harris developed a new show that tried to recapture some of the over-the-top episodic outrageousness of “Soap,” a wry comedic romp focused on the first woman to be elected President of the United States.

When “Hail to the Chief” debuted on Tuesday, April 9, 1985, at 9:30pm, TV audiences immediately recognized that the ABC sitcom was following the same serialized structure that “Soap” had used seven years earlier, to great effect, with recaps at the the beginning of the episodes (which don’t appear to have assigned titles), and comedic poised questions about what to expect for the next episode posed just before the end credits.

Like “Soap,” there were multiple madcap plots to follow, and the show’s interwoven storylines managed to cram a lot of the same ideas that Harris had previously explored for “Soap.”

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The ambitious and snarkily-written show poked fun at every group imaginable — racial, gay, religious, and socio-economic slurs were abundant — with a decidely non-politically correct approach to jokes which now seem somewhat shocking given the attitude in today’s unfunny, PC world.

More specifically, the first Commander in Chief finds herself surrounded by a cabinet of crazies, confronted by such ongoing crises as a lunatic major threatening to start World War III; an equally lunatic Russian Premier on the hot line; his identical twin brother Ivan, the head of the KGB, involved in blackmailing the president’s husband and lots more zaniness.

Much of the ensemble cast — featuring great characters like Herschel Bernardi as National Security Advisor Helmut Luger, Murray Hamilton as Senator Sam Cotton, Glynn Turman as Secretary of State LaRue Hawkes, John Vernon as General Hannibal Stryker, and the great Dick Shawn in dual roles as an unstable Russian premier Dmitri Zolotov and his brother Ivan — couldn’t have been better, all of them perfect fits in roles that remind us how even the most simple-minded network TV shows like this used to be two and three-layers deep with talent.

Guest stars during the show’s short run included Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, George Wyner, and Pat Hingle.

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There was also a flamboyantly gay character (Joel Brooks as Randy, the President’s Chief of Staff); a raving lunatic minister who tries to get the President impeached because he believes Satan was behind her electoral victory (Richard Paul as the Reverend Billy Joe Bickerstaff), a sexy tennis pro (the President’s son, Doug, played by Ricky Paul Goldin) and the Mansfield’s horny daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings), all characters that seemed familiar because Harris had already written similar ones for “Soap.”

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The President herself — Julia Mansfield, played by Patty Duke, who died earlier this year at age 69 — also has to deal with an impotent yet filandering husband, the “First Gentleman” Oliver Mansfield (played by “That Girl” veteran Ted Bessell), who has trouble being intimate with his wife (lots of jokes about her not having enough time for him in the bedroom, and her constantly explaining that, you know, she’s busy because she’s the fucking President) but he seems to be able to get it up okay for sexual trysts with a sexy Russian spy named Darlene, played by Alexa Hamilton (these indiscretions lead to blackmail and marital problems, and when he’s shot and ends up in the hospital,his near-death experience doesn’t dissuade Oliver from a little hanky-panky in his hospital bed).

The marketing for the show focused on the fact that the fictional female president was also a mother and a wife, and claimed that “Hail to the Chief” was going to be “the most outrageous comedy ever shown on television!,” in addition to calling the show “An Equal Opportunity Offender.”

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Alas, after the show’s first seven episodes — all of them filmed in front of a live studio TV audience — were aired on Tuesday nights, between April 9th and July 30th, ABC decided not to go forward with the show, even though it had gotten off to a very good start, attracting 32% of the available viewers and winning its time period for the premiere.

After that, only 24% tuned in the following week, then 23% for the third episode and then 22% for the fourth.

When the network announced they were pulling the plug on the show, they added that in addition to sliding ratings, they’d apparently also received a handful of letters from viewers who were riled up by the show, but it was nowhere near the amount of negative feedback they’d received about Harris’s “Soap.”

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An L.A. Times article about the show, published after it had already been cancelled, said that “Hail to the Chief” “seemed calculated, in its language and themes, to be as inflammatory as it was entertaining,” but also said it was “noteworthy nonetheless as a measurement of how television has changed in recent years.”

By this point, creator Susan Harris (and her producing partners Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas) had seen the writing on the wall, so to speak, and were already taping the pilot episode of their planned next sitcom; it’s one you may remember, called “The Golden Girls.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.