20 August 2012

William Windom’s World and Welcome to It

Windom with his My World co-stars Joan Hotchkiss
and Lisa Gerritsen.

Looking over photographs of the actor William Windom, who died last week at the age of 88, I’m unable now to spot precisely what it was about him that reminded me so much of my father, when I was a boy. The physical resemblance was nowhere near as great as that between my mother and Patricia Neal, upon which people other than myself used to comment quite often; in character, Windom tended to be a good deal more demonstrative in his emotions than Dad, nicknamed “Plato,” ever was. And yet upon hearing of Windom’s death, I do feel a loss.

A handful of performances define him for me, starting with his starring role in the short-lived sitcom My World and Welcome to It, based on the work of James Thurber. The show ran for a single season, from 1969–70, but in discussing Windom with friends my age (or nearly), I’m struck by how many of us watched then and remember now: in a universe with only three television networks, the chances of a “shared experience” were excellent, and probably any network today would be thrilled to find a show with as big an audience as My World — which was cancelled for lack of viewers.

Dad might have preferred that we think of him as Gregory Peck — and on good days, we did — but he never discouraged us from seeing him as William Windom.

In My World Windom projected a dash of weariness, a dash of bafflement, and of course a great running stream of fantasy, abetted by animation in Thurber’s style — but as a child I saw virtually nothing of the darkness that runs through Thurber’s original material, which as a result startled me when I came to read it a few years later. Surely some of this brighter mood stemmed from a decision by the producers that a television audience needed something gentler to hold onto, week after week. For example, wives in Thurber’s work are irrational monsters, but who could object to the elegant Joan Hotchkiss, playing Windom’s wife here?*

Windom won some:
With his Emmy Award for My World in 1970.

As I grew up, I kept running across Windom, notably as the obsessive Commodore Matt Decker in “The Doomsday Machine,” one of those original Star Trek episodes in which the cheesiness of the special effects (the machine in question looks like a tube of aluminum foil squished at one end — and that’s probably what it was) is overridden by the sheer craft of the other elements of the production: suspenseful direction, surprisingly insightful writing, and a certain loopy grandeur in the acting.

As Commodore Decker.

Here Windom toyed with the kind of inner steadiness that he brought to bear in so many other roles, and that I’ll always associate with him — and with my father. Because the Commodore is William Windom, we understand the enormity of the horror he’s witnessed: he’s a hysterical mess, which is not what we expect William Windom to be. Seeming to regain his bearing, he takes command of the Enterprise, but he’s still a basket case, and here again the stakes are raised. If that paragon of sensible behavior William Windom has lost his mind, then the Enterprise is truly in jeopardy.

As Decker again, looking absolutely nothing like my father.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, a film that features a number of actors who went on to play in the Star Trek universe, Windom is the wily prosecutor, playing very, very big. It’s the paradox of To Kill a Mockingbird that the film remains so credible even when all the forces arrayed against Atticus and Tom are drawn so broadly: how could anybody side with them against the noble, even superhuman restraint of Gregory Peck and Brock Peters? And yet in the real world, the bad guys weren’t always so instantly recognizable (or so hammy), and just as in this movie, the good guys lost. How we react to such reversals defines the grownups we become.

Late in life Windom found a recurring role as the crusty doctor of Cabot Cove in Murder, She Wrote, opposite Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. The show was almost a comedy, and though heavyset now and quite a bit older, Windom danced nimbly among the piled-up corpses and celebrity suspects. Steady employment on a top-rated show must have been a nice way to cap off a long and varied career — of which the performances I’ve cited here are just a few highlights.

With Lansbury, in Murder, She Wrote.

He told the New York Times that his proudest achievement was playing Richard III, at the American University in Biarritz, following his army service in World War II. While I never doubted his range, I wouldn’t have imagined him a Gloucester, and that’s one indication that, like most actors and very much like my Dad, he left much of his true self concealed from our view. Windom pops up all the time in movies and television, and we never know precisely what to expect from him: and yet we’re glad to see him, no matter what story he enacts for us. Seeing how fondly he’s remembered by so many of my friends, I wonder whether he knew how much we cared.

*NOTE: It seems that absolutely everybody my age found it easy to cherish Windom’s daughter, played by Lisa Gerritsen. She of course went on to enduring renown as the precociously levelheaded Bess Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis. But who among us remembers that she wore a retainer on My World and Welcome to It?

UPDATE: For more information on My World and Welcome to It, I direct you to this site, as informative as it is entertaining. You’re sure to wind up wishing the show had lasted longer.

1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

I did! When Michael mentioned something about this to me a couple of days ago, I, who grew up on Thurber, and had a little brother who had to wear head gear, told him that the daughter on "My World and Welcome To It" was played by the same actress who played Bess in the Mary Tyler Moore show and, like the kid in the Thurber books, wore head gear to bed.

He was impressed.

Sometimes I think that you and I shared the same childhood, Bill.