My Living Doll in My Living Color
It was the year of Beatles, Bond and… bots? Families in the fall of 1964 watched on as freakish families, stay-at-home witches, wayward tourists and talking animals took over their TV sets, but there was another character who slipped through the cracks of television history. A fembot named Rhoda Miller played by none other than Julie Newmar in her breakout television role. But why has she been forgotten? And why didn’t we ever catch up with her in reruns on Nick at Nite or TV Land? My Living Doll had a turbulent run from the beginning, and through a series of mishaps and oversights, only 11 of the original 26 episodes are known to exist publicly today. I spoke with Peter Greenwood, licensing manager for Jack Chertok Television, to find out how the show has gone missing and how he has been working to preserve the series.
Fresh off of My Favorite Martian’s successful first season in 1963, Jack Chertok presented CBS with a new idea for a sitcom about a sexy robot to be called The Living Doll. CBS was so impressed by My Favorite Martian’s ratings that they ordered a full season sight unseen, with no pilot presentation. James Aubrey, president of CBS, immediately insisted that Julie Newmar be cast in the lead as Rhoda, flying the 29-year-old actress to Hollywood for her first television role. Although its conception was effortless, problems soon arose when there were disagreements over who should play the male opposite. “Jack Chertok wanted Bob Crane or Efrem Zimbalist Jr,” Peter tells me, “but Bob Cummings was under contract to CBS and the executives wanted him for the name.” As the show went through its first-season growing pains, tensions stirred as writers worked to solidify the style of the show, and at the same time, Bob Cummings demanded more focus, even changing the series’ title from The Living Doll to My Living Doll. “I think he tried to make the show more in his image,” remembers producer Howard Leeds, “but it was Julie’s show.”
The series revolves around psychiatrist Dr. Bob McDonald (Bob Cummings) who is set with the responsibility of caring for a top-secret government project in the form of Rhoda (aka Project AF-709,) a sexy, lifelike android made of “low modulus polyethylene plastic and electronic components.” (She was “hand molded,” by the way.) Each episode involves Rhoda finding herself on a wild adventure, nearly being discovered as a robot, and Bob trying to cover up with wild excuses. It’s like Bewitched with gears and hard drives. Like a lot of shows from the 1960s, sexual undertones and traditional gender roles are taken to the extreme as Bob decides he is going to take this opportunity to program the perfect woman. One who “does as she’s told and keeps her mouth shut.” Not even a little subtle on that one. “The reason these shows are wonderful is that you can go back in time and see this so called repression,” says Julie Newmar, “but it wasn’t repression. It was just the way things were. It’s funny today.”
Despite Bob Cummings’ best attempts at reining the spotlight, the show serves as a showcase for Julie Newmar’s acting talents as well as dancing and comedy. “It took me until the thirteenth episode of playing Rhoda, that I really felt as if all my sensory system worked,” she recalls. “What I was doing didn’t just come from my head, it came from my body, which was moving like a robot. You have to move from the inside out. It was very difficult.” On weekends, Cummings was said to take scripts home for rewrites, presenting them to a frazzled director on Monday. “There was one day I came in and he had written me out of the script,” remembers Newmar. “But I got back in.” With his growing frustration through each episode, Cummings finally decided to abandon the series with five episodes remaining in its first season. With production in the lurch, producers had to quickly assign a new male lead.
Producer Howard Leeds recalls finding a replacement for Bob Cummings, “I had to think of something creative for the transition, so we went to Jack Mullaney’s character who lived down the hall and had the hots for the robot.” It was Mullaney’s boyish and charming demeanor that made him an ideal candidate for the new male, opposite Newmar. “We needed a young, horny bachelor so there would be some sexual tension.”
“Jack Mullaney was absolutely the best,” Newmar remembers, “He just had a charm and a gracious kind of being there, totally with you that made the whole production just wonderful for me to be a part of. I was quite rooting for Jack Mullaney.” Although Mullaney served as a respectable replacement, the damage of making such a drastic, last minute change had been done and CBS decided not to renew Living Doll for a second season. Howard Leeds says, “It was regrettable because it deserved another season and I think with the right guy, it could have gone a few more years.”
The real tragedy of My Living Doll is that out of the twenty-six episodes produced, only eleven have publicly surfaced, with the remaining fifteen thought to be held in private film collections today. How the show’s original negatives became lost in the first place remains unclear, even to Jack Chertok Television, its parent studio. “Two sets of 35mm master negatives were struck: one for the CBS archive in Los Angeles and one for the archive in New York,” Peter Greenwood tells me. As licensing manager for Jack Chertok Television, he has been on a quest to find the final fifteen episodes so that they can be restored, preserved and released to the public. The Los Angeles negatives were destroyed in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and the location of the New York negatives remains a mystery. After an exhaustive search of the CBS archives, the negatives were nowhere to be found and nobody seems to know where they went. It is rumored that Jack Chertok ordered the negatives destroyed because he became tired of paying storage fees on the series. Sadly, this is a possibility, since the show never saw syndication or further profits from licensing agreements, and with no negatives to be found in Los Angeles or New York, protection prints are arguably the only chance My Living Doll has for survival.
Unfortunately, some film collectors refuse to provide existing prints so that they can be properly scanned for preservation. “There are rumors that I am demanding the films for free, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” Peter tells me. “I am willing to pay for access to these films because I want this show to be restored, and I want to make it available. I don’t make money from this project; In fact, the first Living Doll DVD set has yet to break even. This is absolutely a passion project.” What makes finding this show even more difficult is that it never went into wide-run syndication, leaving few original prints. “I know the episodes are out there, but they aren’t doing any good sitting in a closet or a basement. These films need to be preserved and restored before they degrade completely and are lost from the world.”
I really hope that the remaining fifteen episodes of this series are one day recovered, both for my personal curiosity as well as for the sake of preserving an historic television series that has hardly seen the light of day since it first aired, over fifty years ago. This series even coined the popular phrase, “does not compute.”
In August, I decided to colorize the opening sequence of the series. With such a fantastic plot line, I imagined the series might be just as brilliant in color. I spoke with Peter for color references, but unfortunately, there were few color photos taken on the set. With no references, and the studio’s blessing, I decided to use a pink background with yellow text for the femininity of Rhoda, and the colorful contrast of yellow text. Interestingly, the animated portions were drawn by Hanna-Barbera artist _______, who also animated for The Jetsons, so I used Rosie the robot as a quick color reference, and everything else was based on my best estimates. While I was partway through the process, Peter sent me an audio file to include with my new version of the show’s opening. It was the unheard version of the theme song with lyrics sung by a studio chorus, discovered on audio reels by himself along with the show’s composer, George Greeley. Below are the complete, unheard lyrics to My Living Doll:
My living doll, made to order
She is perfection in a girl
She’ll always do just what she’s told to
And this holds true anywhere
The perfect figure put together
No robot ever looked so real
She’s no ordinary kind
AF-709 is my own genuine living doll
and the colorized sequence:
As a bonus, I also learned that there is an alternate opening of the series featuring Julie Newmar in a baby doll nightie that was deemed “too sexy” for TV at the time. Although it is only available on an old VHS, I decided to colorize that one, as well. I hope that these videos bring back memories for those who remember the series and I also hope they can serve to bring attention to these missing films. If you have any episodes, or know any information, please contact me through this website or Peter Greenwood, licensing manager for Jack Chertok Television: firstname.lastname@example.org. You will be compensated, and thanked by many.
Alternate opening sequence in nostalgic VHS quality:
“It should have a long life. The premise of The Living Doll is such a great story.” – Julie Newmar