Sunday, May 26, 2013

Charlie's Best and Most Underrated Angel


I admit that I've always been a big fan of "Charlie's Angels" (1976-81), which I already discussed in the early days of my blog.  As I've grown older, my affection for the show continues, as I have also started to recognize aspects and qualities in the show that I once took for granted.  I now realize that Farrah Fawcett, as much as we all loved her, was probably the most overrated of the Angels.  Her work as Jill Munroe was iconic and endearing, but was indeed as light-weight and fluffy as the show's detractors have alleged.  For years, Jaclyn Smith as Kelly Garrett was considered everyone's "favorite" Angel because she was regarded as the classiest and most elegant and I wouldn't dispute that assessment because I do have high regard for her work on the series.  But in recent years, there's one actress on the series whose work continues to surprise and amaze me with the depth and nuance she brought to her role, and that's Cheryl Ladd as Kris Munroe, the first replacement Angel on the series, brought in to take the place of Fawcett when she departed from the series after the first season.


I think of Ladd as the most underrated of all of "Charlie's Angels."  She's usually given short shrift because she wasn't part of the original cast, is in the shadow of Farrah for having replaced her, and wasn't considered the "smart" one the way Kate Jackson is regarded.  But over the years I've also started to regard her as the best of the Angels because of the way she brought recognizable human traits to the Kris Munroe character that allowed her to rise above the fluffy assumptions and expectations the public has about the series.  This is largely due to the fact that Cheryl Ladd was probably the best actress working on that series.  I've also found, in talking with people who also grew up watching the series in the 1970s and 1980s, that a surprising number of men and women liked Ladd better than Fawcett on "Charlie's Angels" because she just seemed to blend into the ensemble better, rather than try and take up much of the spotlight the way Fawcett inadvertently did when she was on the series.


Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I don't think Cheryl Ladd was ever taken for granted by genuine fans of the show who watched it in its original run.  I think we all appreciated how well she integrated into the series after Fawcett's departure.  I also believe there was some fan resentment against Fawcett for abandoning the series that had made her a star so soon after its debut, and that this worked in Ladd's favor.  However, as the decades have progressed, I feel that Ladd's contribution to the series has been minimized and diminished by know-nothing writers in the media who continually hype Fawcett's one-season tenure on "Charlie's Angels" as if she had been on it throughout most of its run.  It appears to have been forgotten that Ladd took over at the beginning of the second season and continued with the series for the next four years until it ended in 1981.  For people who actually remember watching "Charlie's Angels," Ladd made a bigger impression than Fawcett by virtue of having been on it longer.


But I also think Ladd's work on the series holds up better because she brought an air of gravitas, maturity and empathy to her role that surpassed that of her other co-stars.  (Kate Jackson became campier as her time on the series progressed, and Jaclyn Smith, while still appealing, could be a one-note actress at times.)  It's been said that producer Aaron Spelling convinced Ladd to accept the role by promising her that Kris Munroe would be written as the wide-eyed kid sister, who could be humorous, make mistakes, and be recognized by the audience as a human being and not just a glamorous archetype.  Indeed, in her opening scene in her debut episode, Kris comes across as eager and slightly naive, with an endearingly high-pitched voice reflective of her youth.  That may have been the original concept of the character throughout Kris Munroe's debut season but, as her time on the series progressed, her voice deepened and she began demonstrating leadership qualities as she continued to mature so that, by the end of the series, the character had become confident and assured as a private detective and had a level of compassion and concern for others that demonstrated she was wise beyond her years.  I've said before on this blog that the writers often seemed to give Kris Munroe the most serious scenes on the show that elevated it from the light escapism it was intended to be that allowed Ladd to demonstrate qualities of humanity and decency that belied the media's fluffy expectations of the series.


Ladd also had a quality of speaking in a particularly pointed and direct manner that allowed her to get to the heart of a scene succinctly and effectively.  I remember in one 1979 episode, "Angels Go Truckin'" where Ladd admonished Maggie (Joanne Linville) the villainess at the end of the episode, who was behind a hijacking operation stealing the cargo her own company was hired to haul, "It's just too bad that you thought stealin' your own cargo would bring you that gold, Maggie.  You know, you really blew it.  You could've proved once and for all that women can do anything that men can do."  Ladd delivers the line with a damning demeanor that really drives home the degree to which Kris was disappointed in learning of Maggie's treachery.  Furthermore, as an actress, Ladd was particularly good at just listening to the other actors in a scene, taking in and absorbing what they were saying so that her character's response was always natural and organic.  I never got the feeling that Ladd was trying to steal the spotlight from anyone, but was merely working hard to blend into the ensemble.  I think this had to do with the fact that she entered the show at a difficult time in the second season after Farrah Fawcett had left and wanted to do the best she could to be accepted into the cast.  In some ways, I think Ladd's eagerness to be accepted was one reason why her performance in the role was always solid--like her character, Ladd never wanted to be accused by her colleagues or the public for having fallen down on the job.  I think she was a good listener as an actress on the show because she wanted her fellow co-stars to know that she knew that this was an ensemble piece and she wasn't there to steal the spotlight from anyone but, in actuality, was there to enhance them.


Because Ladd wasn't part of the original cast, there's always been a bit of an "outsider" quality to her where the series is concerned that makes her more endearing than the members of the original cast.  While glancing at interviews and articles about the series, one gets the impression that Kate Jackson never particularly warmed up to her, that it took Jaclyn Smith awhile before she and Ladd eventually became good friends, and that Fawcett was friendly enough, but not particularly close with Ladd, when she returned to guest-star on the series later on.  Ladd has stated that she always felt like a bit of an outsider whenever Fawcett returned to guest-star on the series when Kate Jackson was still on it, and that the original three actresses retreated back into their first-season clique, leaving her out of their sphere.  As such, it's hard not to warm up to her feelings of being excluded and taken for granted at times.  Anyone who has experienced that in a scholastic or professional environment can visualize and appreciate what Ladd was describing.  I also like how Ladd has always acknowledged in interviews the challenges that Shelley Hack and Tanya Roberts faced when they later joined the cast and had to try and fit in with the producers' and the audiences' expectations of them.  Ladd obviously identified with what Hack and Roberts each experienced while trying to establish their own identities within the framework of an already-existing hit series.  In interviews about the series, Ladd almost always mentions Hack and Roberts and how much she enjoyed working with them, whereas Jaclyn Smith tends to mention them in a casual manner in her interviews, without going into too much detail about them, which suggests the extent to which Smith doesn't regard them as full-fledged colleagues on the show the way Ladd does.

 

For instance, I always remember how the final Shelley Hack episode closed with Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd with their arms around each other, with Hack left out of that final shot standing from the sidelines looking at them.  It was a visual indicator at the end of the season demonstrating the extent to which Hack, who was not asked to return for another season, was no longer part of the team, and reflects the degree to which the producers had washed their hands of her by that point.  A year later, when the series was ending, the final shot of the series in the last episode was a hospital room scene with Ladd, Tanya Roberts and David Doyle standing bedside next to a wounded Jaclyn Smith.  As the camera slowly zoomed out of the scene, I always liked how Ladd, who was standing in the center, clutching Jaclyn Smith's hand with her left hand, reached over and wrapped her right arm around Tanya Roberts, acknowledging Roberts' presence and pulling her closer into the shot.  It's as if Cheryl Ladd, remembering how Shelley Hack was given short shrift in the final shot of the previous season, was being conscientious about acknowledging the contributions of the newest member of the cast, Tanya Roberts, as the show was ending and wanted to ensure that there was no way she could be left out of the final shot of the entire series.  I always considered it a generous gesture from one fellow actor to another.  (The fact that Ladd has acknowledged in interviews that she always felt bad for how the producers never really appreciated Shelley Hack and discharged her from the series in a tactless manner, and how she also felt bad for Tanya Roberts that the show was cancelled so soon after she arrived, helps contribute to my impression of her.)


But it's Ladd's actual work on-screen on "Charlie's Angels" that continues to impress me and the episode that exemplifies the qualities of maturity and decency that Ladd brought to Kris Munroe was the 1980 segment entitled "Harrigan's Angel."  Veteran actor Howard Duff guest-starred as Joseph Harrigan, an alcoholic, down-on-his luck private detective who has been hired, along with the Angels, by an electronics firm to investigate a series of robberies at their plant.  Unbeknownst to Harrigan, the Angels, or Bosley (David Doyle) is the fact that the head of the firm is behind these robberies and that he hired someone as seemingly incompetent as Harrigan to lead the investigation to give the false impression that he is doing the proper due diligence, while at the same time ensuring that his treachery will never be discovered.  At first recognizing that Harrigan's involvement might impede the investigation, Kris volunteers to keep an eye on him to allow Kelly and Tiffany to do most of the legwork.  When Kelly asks Kris if she thinks she can handle the bumbling, befuddled and blasted Harrigan, Kris compassionately responds, "Oh yeah.  I used to know someone very much like him.  Got real down on his luck, started drinking.  But, you know, when he got dried out he sure was a helluva guy."  When Kelly asks if it was anyone they know, Kris humbly answers, "My father.  I think I can handle Mr. Harrigan."  Ladd plays the scene beautifully, demonstrating empathy and compassion for Harrigan's plight, but without any sense of bitterness or self-pity with regards to being the child of an alcoholic, that reflects a level of humility and maturity that you don't normally associate with characters on this series.


Throughout much of the episode, Kris subtly, but effectively, keeps Harrigan from taking another drink so that he can remain sober to help work on the case and also to allow him to begin regaining a sense of his bearings.  She hides his booze, pretends to accidentally smash his bottle of liquor on the sidewalk, takes his glass away from him just before he starts drinking and distracts him by asking him to bring her his case notes so that she can review them, all to keep him from taking another drink.  Kris' tactics to keep Harrigan away from the booze are done so smoothly that you start to get the impression that she must have had a lot of experience at home as a child trying to help keep her father sober.  In so doing, the writers and Ladd help bring depth and develop the backstory to the Kris character in a way that never feels contrived or out-of-place for the series.  It's integrated effectively into the storyline so that the audience isn't expected to wallow in it the way we would in a modern-day series, where backstory and character motivation are now done in a heavy-handed manner.


At first, we get the impression that Kris feels sorry for Harrigan, but over the course of their time together, we start to see how Kris recognizes Harrigan was once a skillful investigator, and has since fallen on bad times.  When they are being pursued on the road by a truck attempting to run them down, Harrigan advises Kris on how to elude them, based on a tactic he used to elude German patrols in occupied France during World War II, which allows her to see a side of him that she hadn't expected.  As such, instead of merely keeping him from drinking and impeding their investigation, she now works hard to bring some dignity back into Harrigan's life, even letting him take credit for a hunch and theory in the investigation that she developed on her own.  In my favorite scene in the episode, Kris discovers some framed pieces in a box at Harrigan's apartment that helps further illuminate his once impressive career.  She discovers a framed photo of a youthful Harrigan with General Dwight D. Eisenhower that was personally inscribed to Harrigan by Ike, as well as a framed Certificate of Appreciation from General Omar Bradley, that helps put Harrigan in an even more impressive light.


When Kris asks about Eisenhower, Harrigan humbly explains to Kris, "Well, I did some special work for him in France during the occupation...Undercover, OSS-type stuff, you know."  As Kris expresses aloud how impressed she is with the Certificate that Harrigan received from General Bradley, Harrigan comments, "Can't figure it, can you?...You've been coddling me all day.  Keeping me out of the sauce.  Out of the way, so your friends can do their thing.  Now, suddenly, it looks like the dummy wasn't always a dummy."  When Kris apologizes for initially condescending to Harrigan, he reassures her "Don't be.  You made all the right moves.  I'm the one who's out of step.  Those were good days.  Somehow between them and now, I seem to have gotten off the track."  As Harrigan lifts the glass and makes a self-pitying toast "To better times," Kris offers to make him a home-cooked meal if he promises to set the glass down and just talk with her for awhile.  A touched Harrigan responds "Nobody's cooked dinner for me for a long time...OK, start cooking" as he puts the glass down and stops drinking, as Kris requested.


Kris tries to keep the mood light by informing Harrigan, after looking through his kitchen, "I just went through all your cupboards and your refrigerator.  Based on what you have in this apartment, I could wax your floors, poison a few rats, polish sixty, oh, seventy pairs of shoes, and maybe make you a navy bean and celery omelette."  In so doing, Kris learns the nature of Harrigan's alcoholism when her gentle chiding of Harrigan's lack of domestic acoutrements inspires him to reveal that he was once married and that "We had some good times.  She and I.  Even decided to have a kid.  Almost happened, but neither one of them made it."  When Kris apologizes and says she didn't mean to pry, Harrigan reassures her "You didn't.  Maybe then was when I went off the track."  Later, Kris and Harrigan have some genuinely charming and amusing moments where he tries to compliment her cooking, and changes the subject when she asks him to elaborate.  When he tries to reassure her he liked her omelette, she admits, "Harrigan, this is awful!"


At the end of the episode, after the case has been solved and the bad guys are put away, as Kris and Harrigan bid farewell to one another, he promises her "I'm gonna get back on the track.  I went a day without a drink, and I can go another one.  One day at a time.  I think I got a chance, thanks to you."  Kris humbly responds, "I didn't do anything.  You did it all by yourself.  I just sorta hung in there, that's all."  Harrigan gratefully acknowledges, "You hung in there pretty good."  Kris acknowledges that, because of her bad cooking with the omelette, "I owe you dinner."  Harrigan suggests that "dinner will be on me.  We'll go someplace with a little class.  I'll even wear a suit.  OK?"  She kisses him on the cheek, and he reaches out and gently touches her face as they part company.


Howard Duff and Cheryl Ladd have great chemistry together throughout this entire episode.  What starts out as a mildly humorous storyline ends up being genuinely touching as a mutual respect and affection develops between the Kris and Harrigan characters.  Kris sees Harrigan as a surrogate father figure that she feels genuinely protective of, whereas Harrigan regards Kris as a surrogate for both his wife, who he lost when she was in childbirth, and the child that he was meant to have raised with his late wife.  You sense at the end of the episode that Harrigan may have fallen a little bit in love with Kris.  The storyline could have been maudlin, except for the flashes of humor that Duff and Ladd bring to their scenes together.  Throughout these scenes, Ladd demonstrates her qualities of listening, absorbing, and taking in what her fellow actor Duff is expressing while playing Harrigan.  Ladd plays off of him in a natural, subtle, humane way that allows Duff to express who Harrigan is as an individual, while also illuminating the Kris Munroe character in the process.  We see Kris express admirable qualities of patience and humility, as well as sincere respect and reverence for Harrigan's prior accomplishments before he took to drinking.  What I also like is how Ladd demonstrates Kris' level of appreciation and awe for historical figures like Eisenhower and Bradley that you don't normally associate with individuals in their late 20s on a fluffy television detective series.  I think this reflects how prior generations were raised with an understanding and appreciation for history, something that isn't as likely to happen with a character from the same age bracket on a current TV show, who probably have no idea what happened historically in the last decade much less during World War II.


As demonstrated in the "Harrigan's Angel" episode, Cheryl Ladd brought qualities of humanity, humility, intelligence, courage, empathy, and patience to Kris Munroe which reflects all of the reasons she was so popular on the show.  Aside from her good looks and sense of fashion, Ladd instilled the role with recognizable human characteristics that made the audience like and care about Kris and which is why the show continues to remain a part of our pop culture landscape over 30 years after it ended.  Of all the actresses on "Charlie's Angels," I consider Ladd to be the most talented.  She built a solid career for herself in the 30-plus years since the show ended with her appearances in television movies, and the occasional theatrical feature, where she continually brought humanity, sensitivity and depth to everything she did.  Even though "Charlie's Angels" is a show considered by many to be cheesy and campy, if the audience didn't at least have a cast of individuals that they enjoyed spending time with week-after-week, it would have been a long-forgotten series by now.  The so-called "jiggle" factor and the novelty of seeing women as action heroines in a detective series has long since worn off as current TV shows are much more sexually explicit and vulgar, and feature plenty of women playing detectives or other action-oriented characters.  I believe the reason why people still remember the show with fondness is because we liked these characters and wanted to either grow up to be like them, or know people like them in our lives.  Cheryl Ladd appeared to understand this, which is why she never condescended to the material, nor ever attempted to just coast by on her looks and charm, and always delivered the goods as an actress while playing Kris Munroe on "Charlie's Angels." 

9 comments:

  1. What a great piece! I don't know "Charlie's Angels" that well, but I always thought Cheryl Ladd brought a lot of class to her role. Now that I think about it, she really IS the most under-appreciated Angel. Thank you for pointing this out and giving me something new to think about. I'll check out the "Harrigan's Angel" episode.

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  2. love this and I always "felt" that ladd and david doyle had a special chemistry that made their interaction more real for me. Cheryl definitely brought humor to the rold and depth. my fave angel!!!

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  3. i think cheryl is the finest actress of them all... and after charlie's angels she continued to make movies for tv and theaters and concerts for tv as well. i have heard about that issue before with kate jackson and it's hard to believe but then if it's true.. i feel really sad. but the best part that i learned about Cheryl now is that person who really cares about her co-stars, specially those that came in after her - making them feel not just an add-on or replacement but a part of the show.

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  4. Having grown up in the 70's, I remember well that after the first season of CA, the adults all said two things, 1- it was interesting having 3 lady detectives and 2- no one gave the show a snowballs chance after one or two seasons. Then Farah was gone and Cheryl was in and everyone's opinion changed almost immediately. And this blog entry explains precisely why that happened.

    The show didn't end when it did because Kate Jackson was gone, though she was great. Nor did it end because of the producers treatment of Shelley Hack though she was a great addition they threw away I think. No, the reason it ended is because "Kris" should have gravitated into more of a prominent role in the show after KJ's departure and that didn't happen. If they had done that, CA could easily have lasted as long as Dallas or MASH. Cheryl Ladd made that show. Being much older now and watching it, that is plain to see and I personally think that without her, it would have been canceled after season 2.

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  5. I'm glad someone gave Cheryl Ladd the respect she deserved.

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  6. Jacklyn Smith is my favorite angel in the looks department but Cheryl Ladd is the best angel overall. She has looks, talent, and charm.

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  7. Cheryl Ladd was by far best actress and I prefer over Farrah Fawcett. Jaclyn Smith is also a class act, but Cheryl Ladd was a fresh of breath air.

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  8. Cheryl indeed does come across as such a sweet lady….. I too agree w/ this great article that she does verbalize understanding of how Hack & Roberts must have felt joining an already established tv show…. She is something special.

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