- One of my favorite people died Thursday. Since he affected my life, I thought you needed to know about him.
His name was Bruce Paltrow. The last name probably rings a bell, since he was Gwyneth’s father and all. And you might remember seeing his name all over the credits for “St. Elsewhere” — his baby, the show that made him famous, maybe the most influential TV drama of the ’80s. He captured a bunch of Emmys, made some money, reached the top of his profession. Even if he never reached those same heights again, only a handful people in Hollywood know what it feels like.
But that’s not why I liked him. Back in 1978, Paltrow created my favorite TV show, “The White Shadow.” Created it from scratch. Thought up the characters. Gave them names and histories. Gave them a premise. Wrote the pilot episode. Slapped his imprint on every facet of the show. And it became the only meaningful sports-related TV show of my lifetime.
Like anything else, you had to be there. For instance, when you watch those old “Saturday Night Live” re-runs from the ’70s, the ones they show on E!, you can’t help but think to yourself, “We really thought this stuff was groundbreaking?” Well, it was. You had to be there. They were pushing boundaries, crossing lines, pulling things that nobody had ever seen. We were just along for the ride.
The “White Shadow” was like that, too. Back in the ’70s, most African-American characters on TV were relegated to sitcoms, and only under mitigating circumstances. “The Jeffersons” were spun off from “All in the Family,” given some money and thrown into a wealthy high-rise. In “Diff’rent Strokes,” two poor black kids were adopted by a rich white millionaire. In “Sanford and Son,” a wisecracking old man owned a junkyard with his degenerate son. A splendid sitcom called “Good Times” featured the Evans family struggling to survive in Chicago’s toughest projects … and that show became overshadowed by Jimmie Walker, the goofy actor who played the oldest son and shouted out things like “Dy-no-MITE!”
….Then the White Shadow came along.
Here was the premise: Former NBA player Kenny Reeves (white) moves to L.A. to coach Carver High’s basketball team (mostly black). Reeves (played perfectly by Ken Howard) was the only major white character in the show. The principal (his college buddy, Willis) was black. The assistant principal (Cybil Buchanan, Kenny’s foil on the show) was black. Most of the team was black, including Hayward (leader of the team); Coolidge (the blue-chip center and comic relief); Reese (token good guy, the Bob Horry character); Jackson (the head case, a recovering alcoholic); and Thorpe (the wise-cracking point guard). There was also a Mexican guard named Gomez, a Jewish kid named Goldstein (the team whipping boy) and a punk named Salami (a white kid with a racial identity crisis). And that was the team.
I can guess at CBS’s reaction when Paltrow pitched the show: “Ummmm … wait a second, where are the white people?”
He stuck to his guns. Made the pilot. People loved it. Maybe the ratings never reflected it, but few shows garnered more die-hard fans and critical acclaim.
More importantly, I loved it. As an only child watching way too much television at the time, I was patiently awaiting my own show, the one that spoke to me and only me. I loved the “Brady Bunch,” “Gilligan’s Island,” all the aforementioned sitcoms, “Charlie’s Angels,” “Three’s Company,” “The Incredible Hulk” … but this was different. It felt like they created “The White Shadow” just for me.
For one thing, I loved basketball as much as anyone could possibly love basketball. Loved playing it, loved watching it, lived for it. And much like Salami, I was undergoing a little bit of a racial identity crisis. I loved the Celtics so much, wanted to play for them so badly, was obsessed with it … and I couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t too many white guys on the team. Or in the NBA in general…..