Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mr. Novak (1963)

James Franciscus starred in over 75 film and television productions during his career, but today he is best remembered for three roles - as Brent in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, as a blind insurance investigator (and martial arts student of Bruce Lee) in Longstreet, and as the tough but idealistic young teacher John Novak in Mr. Novak. Of the three, Novak was probably his best work, hardly surprising given the quality of writing on the show Novak was also Franciscus's most successful TV show; despite running only two seasons, it yielded 60 episodes and made Franciscus a teen idol. Franciscus was featured in teen magazines alongside the Beatles, the Monkees, Ricky Nelson and Dr. Kildare's Richard Chamberlain. (Franciscus was the first choice for Dr. Kildare but couldn't take the role, so the creator of Kildare, E. Jack Neuman, is said to have created Mr. Novak for Franciscus, and critics did tend to see the show as "Dr. Kildare in a high school", although Time magazine once called Franciscus "the Richard Chamaberlain who can act").

Academy Award winner Dean Jagger appeared as Novak's principal, Mr. Vane; he was replaced in the second season by Burgess Meredith. The show was a who's who of famous guest stars, both young – Tony Dow, Johnny Crawford, Beau Bridges, Kim Darby, Walter Koenig (aka Chekhov from Star Trek), Tommy Kirk, Shelly Fabares, Tommy Sands, Don Grady – and older – Ed Asner, Martin Landau, Cloris Leachman, Lillian Gish, Edward Mulhare, Eddie Albert. More importantly, the show tackled real world problems in an intelligent and at times fearless manner, tackling issues such as teen pregnancy, improper relationships betwen teachers and students (with both male and female teachers involved), drug abuse, teen drinking, sex education, race relations – and it didn't talk down to the teens who were supposed to be its audience. In more than one instance it drew fire from those who didn't like its message; one episode in particular, about a young black girl threatened for attending Novak's high school, drew large volumes of hate mail from those who disliked it's "pro-Negro" message.

In the end, though, despite being an ex-Korean War fighter pilot (seeing friends die in the war prompted Novak's career choice), Mr. Novak just couldn't win the ratings war against Combat!, its time slot competitor. The show is not yet available on DVD, although it's rumored that Warner Archive ( may release it soon. In the meantime, some portions of episodes can be viewed on Youtube at the links below.