Thursday, 15 August 2013

Ted Wass: Moving behind the camera

Ted Wass as Danny Dallas in the sitcom "Soap".
Recently I was watching a rerun of “2 Broke Girls” and it wasn’t the actors who rang a bell. That night it was the director – Ted Wass.

At various times he has been the father to “Blossom”, and the heir apparent to Inspector Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” movies. However, I remember him as part of a cast of one of the ground-breaking sitcoms of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Ted Wass played Danny Dallas in “Soap”, which broke taboos and addressed subjects rarely mentioned to that point on television. It was pioneering, and able to do that through a clever plot device. It spoofed soap operas, which were already renowned for outlandish plots. It provided the perfect cover to attack dozens of social issues, and Ted Wass played a big role.

Another Dallas in a soap opera
The show was created by Susan Harris, Paul Junger Witt, and Tony Thomas. It centred around two sisters: Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon), who had more secrets than anyone could count.

Wass played Danny Dallas, Mary's eldest son, and protective older brother to Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal). In the first season, Danny was told by the mob his late father had been murdered, and he was to avenge that death by killing his father's murderer. There was just one problem though: the supposed murderer was Danny's step-father Burt Campbell (Richard Mulliagan). He spends the first season first trying to kill Burt but unable to do so, when he discovers Burt acted in self-defence. Consequently, Danny has to take it on the run, ultimately cutting a deal where he has to marry Elaine (Dinah Manoff), the daughter of a mobster (Sorrell Booke, who later played Boss Hogg in "The Dukes of Hazzard") in exchange for his freedom. In the midst of all this, he actually goes from loathing to loving Elaine, only to see her kidnapped and murdered.

Commentary – social and otherwise
"Soap" tackled a lot of controversial issues, and brought a lot of taboo subjects to television at a time where they had rarely or ever been discussed. One of the characters was openly gay, another suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. There was a suicide attempt, the struggles of a priest who fell in love and tried to reconcile that with his sacred vows, and a boy abducted by a cult. "Soap" also mocked racial and gender stereotyping.

There was a lot of talk about sex, whether it was extra-marital affairs, promiscuity, impotence, or the power of the orgasm.

And there was of course, the perpetual spoofing of soap operas and their outlandish story lines. There was the demonic possession of a baby, an alien abduction, and a character suffering amnesia and getting lost.

Dimwitted Danny Dallas was in the thick of a lot of it.

My own take
I still cannot believe I was allowed to stay up to watch "Soap". On peasant vision, it was on Thursday nights at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 13. It followed a CTV-made show called "Live it Up", which was kind of a consumer/current affairs show hosted by Jack McGaw, Allan Edmonds, and Mary-Lou Finlay. I have vivid memories of all the plots, but never even came close to getting any of the sexual references or innuendo. It was only when the show aired every day after school in Grade 9, on Channel 7, that I began to understand what some of those deeper meanings were. Good thing too.

After four seasons, "Soap" went off the air in 1981. Ted Wass would go on to appear in some TV movies such as "I was A Mail Order Bride" with Valerie Bertinelli, and some theatrical movies such as "Curse of the Pink Panther" and "Oh God, You Devil".

There had even been talk of making Wass' character in "Curse of the Pink Panther" into a recurring character to keep the "Pink Panther" franchise going, but that never materialized after the movie bombed.

Instead, Wass landed another landmark role in 1991, as Nick Russo, Blossom's dad, in the sitcom of the same name. This show was actually produced in association with Witt and Thomas. "Blossom" also dealt with some social issues, often announced with the phrase "a very special episode".

After five seasons, "Blossom" went off the air in 1995, and Ted Wass retired from acting to focus on his directing career.

Ever since then, he has directed a episodes of "Spin City", "Everybody Hates Chris", "'Til Death", "Rules of Engagement", "Two and a Half Men", "The Big Bang Theory", and of course, "2 Broke Girls".

It is always interesting to see how many actors move behind the camera to become directors. It is just interesting for me to see how the work, and the people who directed them, influence their own direction.

Ted Wass played two distinct characters in television shows that did not shy away from tackling tough issues. Hopefully, that informs his current work, so he can bring that same depth and layering to sitcoms in the 21st Century.

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