Tuesday, September 23, 2003

There lies a lonely grave for the Maytag man

When it comes to sitcom icons of the '70s, there's one area where John Ritter had it all over Gordon Jump: timing. Not comedic timing, for they each provided countless hours of quality televised hilarity. But Ritter answered the final curtain call at the exact right moment, while Jump just missed it.

You could argue the death of John Ritter was untimely. He was, after all, only 54 and he was still in the prime of his career, the star of a hit series. But he also had the fantastic luck to die just before the Emmys, just in time to have a special tribute to him produced and presented. Bob Hope was the only other celebrity to receive this kind of honor, and he was a certifiable TV legend. But what of Buddy Ebsen? Or Robert Stack? David Brinkley? Each was a giant of the small screen, and each also died recently, though long ago enough to have slipped from the headlines and immediate memory, and long enough ago to not warrant a special individual tribute.

Poor Gordon Jump will have been almost forgotten entirely by the time the Emmys roll around again, since he had the misfortune to pass on a scant two days after this year's ceremonies. Yet, his Mr. Carlson is almost as memorable an icon of 1970s television as was Ritter's Jack Tripper. He was a reliable small-screen presence, appearing in both the original and the revival of WKRP in Cincinnati, Growing Pains, Sister Kate, Soap, Starsky and Hutch, and countless Maytag commercials as the venerable Maytag Man, a role from which he just retired at the end of July. (Gordon Jump had nothing to do with 21 Jump Street, however.)

Yet his most indelible moment surely came when he portrayed the bicycle repairman who tried to molest Arnold and Dudley on a very special episode of Diff'rent Strokes. It's frankly amazing that they ever let him be the Maytag Man after his portrayal of the loathsome Bicycle Man, and the bad name he gave the repair industry in general. That's surely worth some kind of award testifying to his skill as an actor. He won't get one, but I'll be satisfied if the deluded and embittered Gary Coleman gives a speech from the gubernatorial campaign trail out in California in which he openly applauds the death of the monster who drugged and groped his friend Dudley. That'd be close enough.

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