Thursday, December 15, 2016

Calling Dr. Bombay! Actor Bernard Fox dies at age 89

Well, there goes another piece of my childhood, thank you very much. When the news came today of the passing of Bernard Fox, at age 89, as social media flooded in, I didn't feel the need to read all the stories that described his career. Instead, I reflected on the fact that I knew Bernard Fox primarily as Dr. Bombay from a childhood favorite TV series, Bewitched. And as it is a Thursday evening tonight, some five decades ago, chances were excellent that I'd be tuning in to ABC to catch my favorite show. This was in a day and time when children did their homework right after school and had time left for some prime-time viewing for however late our parents would give us time to do so.

TV was filled with fantasy shows that were entertaining, when the entire family could sit in front of the screen without exception. Quaker Oats sponsored Bewitched and all it took for me to hear was "Nothing is better for thee than me" to know it was a Quaker Oats cereal commercial and it was time for Bewitched. Or, in the beginning of the show, back in a day when all we had was black and white TV, and glad to have that, you'd see the lovely Elizabeth Montgomery appearing immediately before the broadcast saying, "Stay tuned for Bewitched, next, in color!" Her beautiful northeastern accent lilted out as she pronounced the word "color" and you knew unmistakably that she was a classic example of the acting schools of exquisite enunciation.

From 1964-1972, I was a faithful viewe,r along with 5 or 6 million others of you, who loved the show for a myriad of reasons. Those of us who were bona fide fans saw every episosde from 1964-1972, and were happy for summer reruns to keep us all on even keel year-round. "Sam" represented a strong woman with a superpower and a tempered way of using it to make things better for others. Her husband Darrin, whether Dick York or Dick Sargent, continually disapproved of her power, but she could find a way around their fussiness and in 24 minutes of scripted dialog, she'd outfox her earthling husband and have her own way. For a little girl, that made a big impression on me. I could twitch my nose perfectly (if I may brag on a noncommerical talent) and it seemed to amuse the grownups around me. Similarly I could fold my arms and blink like Jeannie, once again a noncommercial talent, but it kept me out of trouble, frankly, and that was a good thing.

Thank heavens I was born into a generation where women could do science if they chose to. Two of my favorite mentors in science and thermodynamics (again, fun at parties), never once questioned why I was a woman who wanted to study science. They thought everyone should want to study science. And yet, I truly recall my longtime high school career goal was to be a television director, with a microbiology minor (as my plan B). Early high school microbiology studies consisted of washing infinite numbers of test tubes. Well, I was pretty good at mixing various chemicals (safely) in an attempt to make our porcelain kitchen sink shine its best ever!! My mother encouraged my love of chemistry and she was very happy to have a child who volunteered to do dishes and clean sinks!

All this to say, I laugh at why I have to go look up the 'other' stuff and can instead readily quote lines of dialog at will from Bewitched. You say, "Bernard Fox," and I immediately reply, "Dr. Bombay, calling Dr. Bombay, emergency, come right away!!" and that's all it would take for the sound effect to ring out and Bernard, if he doesn't mind my familiarity, would pop in instantly to help Samantha with whatever witchlike ailment she had. Dr. Bombay was a warlock but no one ever described him that way.

There was no such thing as a Harry Potter or a Hogwarts, although now I recall the uproar about J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, which caused children to want to read it all the more. Such a brilliant trick to get children to read something, anything, in a day and time when they're trained to stare at a little screen with a game on it so Mommy won't freak out with their impatience.

It wasn't that long ago that we were in bookstores, holding onto precious brand new copies of our books, selected carefully, deliberately, with relish, having saved up for weeks to own a new book. Or, to carefully cradle the library books we were checking out in the world of making requests to borrow items of value and offering a promise of safe return. We took that very seriously as kids, as I think about it. Check your purse or backpack. Do you see a pen that's in there that's not yours and wonder how it got there? Somewhere along the way, we stopped taking so seriously the promise to return something we borrowed briefly, undamaged. Now if you've seen me today, no, you don't have my pen, nor do I have yours. I'm just saying, promises to return are not as heavily weighed on our minds, unless we've made a contract or agreement to supply x to receive y.

It only takes a moment to envision the perturbed, harassed and slightly grizzled face of Dr. Bombay, whose promise to his patients was to appear, truly, whenever you called on him because you needed him, and him alone, to cure what ailed you. It only took one visit. He didn't need to run any fancy tests. He was, in fact, an omniscient internal medicine specialist. A detective, if you will, and his intuition told him what was wrong with Samantha and how she could fix it. The ailments Sam came down with were pretty funny and the side effects of those illnesses were not scary. In fact they were funny. And, she was always cured in every show and she'd return back the next week, good as new. That's a lovely view of life. Life, illness, countered by Dr. Bombay, recovery, flourishing, joyful existence. Rinse. Repeat.

Three times this past week, I've said to friends and clients alike, "As Darrin Stephens' mother, Phyllis, would say to her husband, "Frank, I think I'm getting one of my sick headaches, we'd better go home," and I'm positive that all three times I have used this example, I've confused the heck out of whomever I was talking to. Yet, the phrase made perfect sense (to me) and was appropriate for the situation in which I was expressing complete disgust at circumstances beyond my control.

Control. That's another reason we loved Bewitched. Sam had no mood swings, breakdowns where she just couldn't take being a witch any longer, or hiding the fact from poor Gladys Kravitz any longer. Sam had control of her life and was always the victor when things got rough for Darrin in the world of McMann and Tate. That we never saw McMann or knew his first name was entirely unimportant. The catch phrases from Bewitched are as ingrained in my head and they pop out at some of the most humorous of times. "Oh my stars!" "Wellllll!" with the lilting voice, and Darrin's "Musn't twitch" dictate to Tabitha, his daughter. "Frank, I think I'm getting one of my sick headaches. We'd better go home" just made sense.

Larry Tate's ongoing threats to Darrin regarding his job being on the line each week to do the impossible always being countered with "You son of a gun, ya!" whenever Darrin/Durwood/Darwin came through...and those beautiful blue eyes of David White's and his trademark moustache would both gleam on screen. Yes, I know that cousin Serena was played by Pandora Spocks, the Elizabeth Montgomery humorous touch referring to Pandora's Box...and it was fun to see Elizabeth/Pandora pick up an electric guitar one episode and play and sing and be very un-Samantha-like.

Considering why I can retain memories of so many of the assorted guest stars, many of whom made regular appearances in entirely different character roles taught me not to hold fast to seeing any one person in a one-dimensional way. Just as Dick York and Dick Sargent could be acceptable to me, in equal fashion as Darrin, so too could Gladys Kravitz be portrayed equally well by Alice Pearce and Sandra Gould, two names I don't have to Google...they're just there stuck in my brain. Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur and the great Marion Lorne as Aunt Clara (pronounced 'ont Clahrah' the way we were always raised to pronounce 'aunt' until we met Ain't Bee on The Andy Griffith Show) all depends on where you heard it first. Same with a rowt 44 drink at Sonic for happy hour or root 44 drink at Sonic.

After considerable reflection one day on a recent long car drive, I finally reconciled why it was that I can remember the cast and probably the producer and director names on Bewitched was because my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Eargle, handed me back my math paper and made me erase the name I'd written at the top and said, "Young lady, you take that name off of there this minute and put the right name on there!" "And be quick about it." Well, I was only 8 years old and I didn't see what all the dad-gum fuss was about. That day and that time of the day for whatever reason, I felt like Samantha Stephens and that's the name I put on my paper before turning it in. Dawn Lee was busy. Samantha was taking the test. So what?

That was probably the first time in my memory that righteous indignation welled up inside me and I (almost) rebelled at removing Sam's name. It was written out, neatly, in nice cursive writing, where I'd make my two "S"'s look pretty darned good, thank you very much. But the rules were the rules. And Mrs. Eargle's rules were irrefutable, irreversible and downright irritating. Needless to say, she was not my favorite teacher, nor was I beloved to her as a pupil because of my tendency to even break one of her precious rules. I think my defiance turned inward and I refused to let go any knowledge of the program, its cast, crew, plots, guests, theme song, or variations in show openings over the years. I clung to my knowledge of that show to the point today that I can simply see the name Bernard Fox, and in a millisecond I'm back in 4th grade. So for that, I am most thankful for my memories of childhood, anchored if you will by the comforting boundaries of a delightful show of fiction, fantasy, and familiarity. I felt that way about many, many shows, of course, and found that I can still sing virtually any TV theme song on request. Again, fun at parties.

I remember teaching Physical Chemistry (PChem) lab during grad school days and, while conducting educational laboratory learning for my juniors and seniors in PChem lab, I'd be wearing my white lab coat with the Mr. Bill applique on the back. You remember Mr. Bill, right? "Oh noooooooooooo!" That was how we felt about PChem lab reports for which all of us would pull grueling all-nighters writing up those tedious lab reports that were 38 pages long (handwritten, on notebook paper, thank you very much). And, for long experiments that took 3 hours to complete, we had to do something to break the monotony. So, TV theme songs it was!!

We did them all. From the theme song to Gilligan's Island, to The Brady Bunch, The Real McCoys, on and on and on, we did all the greatest hits of our very young lives, with perfect recall. Our lab sounded good as we had the best time coping with the fact that you only got a one-hour credit for all those weeks of grueling labs and the reports that went with them. My supervisors didn't object (Mrs. Eargle still would not approve! Nor, by the way, would Mrs. Kim) and my students learned to put their best efforts into a crummy one-hour credit class because I told them that one day they'd realize that their bosses would pay great attention to how they treated the details of seemingly the most tedious of tasks while simultaneously accomplishing other work of derring-do with equal aplomb.

Sonny Bono wrote a song (yes, you knew I'd invoke my Sonny and Cher knowledge) "It's the Little Things," (It's the little things that mean a lot; it's what you are and not what you've got..." Call my name and I'll come running, look at me and the clouds start sunning, hold my hand and you've got me going..."). Bottom line: It's the little things that mean a lot.

Yes, all Samantha had to do was call the name of Dr. Bombay and he'd come running. He'd pop into the kitchen or living room in full costume or regalia fresh from a new award he was in the midst of receiving. And yet, he never resented being called upon. It was his duty to come when she'd called in need. If ever there was a lesson about friendship between people and how to treat others, it was being the unquestioned responder, when a friend or loved one is in trouble. Be a person of your word. Be a person of modesty. Do good without expecting accolades. Do good and be quiet about it. Be a person who gives back what they borrow. Do without expecting in return. And always, always, keep your sense of humor about you, because life is simply too short to live it otherwise.

At 89 years old, Bernard Fox had lived a good life, was an actor respected for far more than one role he played for a fixed time on TV. And yet, simply to read his name in any reference is guaranteed to return a smile to my face if there wasn't one there already. Thanks, Bernard Fox, for being inspirational. Actors play roles, but the best actors create lasting impressions and bring us great sources of fun to watch. Thanks Dr. Bombay, for always being there when Samantha called.