Monkees vs. Macheen: Peter Tork (1942-2019)

There is only feeling
In this world of life and death
I sing the praise of never change
With every single breath

Just a few weeks ago, I was writing about James Frawley; now Monkees fans have the one-two punch of grieving for the loss of Peter Tork. There is plenty of biographical information available about Tork on the internet, so I won’t spend much time on that. I’ll just do some basics. Peter was born Peter Thorkelson on February 13, 1942 in Washington D.C. He was a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village and then Los Angeles. According to the book, Monkees Day by Day (Andrew Sandoval), he was working as a dishwasher when musician Stephen Stills (who also auditioned for the show) recommended Tork for The Monkees. The producers were impressed with his sense of humor and cast him.

Since this is a blog about The Monkees, this will be all about Tork’s performance as the charming, adorable band member character, created for the show. Monkees writer Treva Silverman mentioned in an interview that the writing team couldn’t decide if Peter should be an idiot, or a genius. They took a vote and decided on “idiot.” After recapping 58 episodes, I think that’s a little too narrow. Peter was more childlike and naive than anything, with many flashes of pure genius. Certainly, he was one of the funniest performers, though frequently he had the thankless job of being the punchline of one-liners and sight gags. The character’s innocence, gullibility, and misunderstanding of situations was always good for a laugh. His questions to Mike or Micky would often provide exposition to the audience. Tork may not have always liked playing or being identified with the character. Micky Dolenz said in the Monkees documentary, Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees (1997), that Peter Tork had the toughest acting job, since he had to play a character the least like his real-life personality. Peter was possibly the most likable Monkee; certainly he was the easiest to root for. The band was a group of underdogs and Peter was the underdog among them.

One of the best episodes featuring Peter was “The Devil and Peter Tork,” a story based on “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Steven Vincent Benét. In this episode Peter nearly loses his soul to the Devil because of his love of playing the harp. Tork captures Peter’s childlike wonder when he first sees and then falls in love with the harp. When the Devil supposedly gives him the talent to make beautiful music with the instrument, I smile when I see his face light up as he plucks the strings. The Devil comes calling to make Peter pay his part of the deal and, thanks to Tork’s acting, I completely buy that Peter’s intentions were pure. He didn’t care about the fame and fortune he received; he just wanted to make people happy with music. Tork’s natural gift for inspiring sympathy from the audience went a long way towards making this episode work.

As a viewer, I don’t want to see the kindest Monkee doomed to hell, and I actually felt frightened for him. Fortunately the other Monkees rally around their friend and Mike convinces him that he can play the harp without the Devil’s power. Tork is convincing in the climax of the episode, showing us his anxiety and fear and then his gentle happiness when he realizes he’s really playing! Peter Tork’s success in these performances might have something to do with the fact that he wasn’t previously trained as an actor. His portrayal comes off as genuine, not practiced. He’s the kid in all of us, and he nicely contrasts the smoother Davy and cynical Micky and Mike. Peter Tork also did well miming the harp performances. Though he did subsequently learn to play, he did not know how at the time, and he watched Harpo Marx for inspiration on faking it.

Peter Tork wasn’t usually the star of the episode and many of his best moments were as part of the ensemble. One of the funniest episodes of season one was “Monkees in a Ghost Town,” and Peter Tork contributed many entertaining moments. In one bit, Peter lists the events of the plot so far, setting up Micky for the fourth-wall breaking line, “That’s for the benefit of any of you who’ve tuned in late. Now, back to our story!” Next, Micky gets an idea and Peter holds the light-bulb over Micky’s head. Both of these gags are over the top, and could have failed, but Peter sells them with sincerity and energy. Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz made dynamic comic partners and among their best scenes is their attempt to impersonate gangsters. Micky’s Cagney impression is a scene-stealer, but Peter backs him up as gruff-voiced sidekick, Spider. For the few moments while the illusion lasts, Peter Tork captures Spider’s physical stance and aggression and he and Micky Dolenz nail the comic timing. After the duo are busted, Peter resorts to his usual little boy demeanor, protesting to the real gangsters that they can’t step on a spider because “…it’ll rain.” Again, such a silly line could have easily been a groaner but Tork could always say that kind of stuff like he meant it. At the climax of the episode, when Peter gets a hold of the gangster’s gun, even big, bad Lenny is rooting for him and prompts him with his own famous line, “You guys ain’t goin’ nowhere!”

I could go on forever, mentioning memorable performances of Peter Tork’s from the series. But, in the interest of time, here’s a quick list of 10 more of my favorite Peter moments:

“I’ve Got a Little Song Here”–After a few failed attempts, Monkee Man Peter finally learns to fly.
“One Man Shy”–Peter gains confidence in his ability to win over the ladies and gets them all to kiss him in a game of spin the bottle.
“Too Many Girls”–Peter as The Amazing Pietro: “Notice that my fingers never leave my hands.”
“Find the Monkees”– Peter comes up with the idea to “be” the band that television producer Benson Hubbell is trying to find.
“Monkees a la Mode”–Peter sweetly menaces Robroy and blocks him from leaving the stage.
“It’s a Nice Place to Visit”– Peter’s surprises Micky, Mike and the audience with a cool, gun-twirling maneuver.
“Hillbilly Honeymoon”–Peter as Uncle Racoon pulls off an over-the-top hillbilly accent and gives marriage advice to the lovelorn Jud.
“Monkees Marooned”– Peter is miraculously able to communicate with Kimba of the Jungle, learning his entire life story from the word “Kretch.”
“The Card Carrying Red Shoes”–Peter evades amorous Natasha, who chases him around the pad. “Well, I love you and my face loves you, it’s just my body that’s out of shape.”
“Monkees on the Wheel,”–In a rare out-of-character moment, Peter as “The Professor” uses his “system” to trick the gangsters into getting drunk and passing out.

Of course I don’t want to end this post without talking about music. Peter Tork was, rightly or wrongly, considered one of the two “real musicians” of the cast. He’s the musician behind the memorable piano lick on “Daydream Believer” (John Stewart). Though he didn’t get to sing as much, I always enjoyed the duet with Micky Dolenz on “Words” (Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart) and what the heck, I even liked the novelty-folk song, “Auntie Grizelda,” (Diane Hildebrand/Jack Heller) which was certainly well-used for romps on the show. I’m also a fan of his songwriting contributions to the Head soundtrack, “Can You Dig It?” and “Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” (Interesting that both song titles are questions.) “Can You Dig It” is one of the strongest tracks. Last but not least, one of my favorite Peter Tork-penned songs was on the album Headquarters, “For Pete’s Sake.” This tune was the closing theme in the second season and one I remember fondly. Though I was often sad to hear it because it meant the episode was over. The song has lovely lyrics and captures the psychedelic feel of the second season.

In this generation
In this lovin’ time
In this generation
We will make the world shine

After the show ended, Peter Tork was the first to leave the band in 1968. He worked as a solo musician, formed other bands, even tried his hand at a recording and film production company. He reunited with the other Monkees several times for tours, albums, the 1997 special, and the fifty year reunion album, Good Times!. He contracted adenoid cystic carcinoma in 2009. He died of complications from the disease on February 21, 2019 in his home in Connecticut.

The Monkees universe and the world in general is a sadder place without this funny, charming, brilliant man.

by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examined the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.

Advertisements

Monkees vs Macheen: “Monkees Marooned”

“Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale”

“Monkees Marooned” debuted October 30, 1967 and begins as many episodes do, with Peter getting into trouble. He walks around town and plays his acoustic guitar. An unseen man summons him, offering to show him some “good pictures.” Peter agrees, “I’d love to. I haven’t seen a good picture since Carnival in Costa Rica with Dick Haymes and Vera-Ellen.” That’s the first of MANY Hollywood mentions in this episode. Leonard Sheldon shows him the baby picture from “The Picture Frame.” He wants Peter to buy a map of Blackbeard’s treasure. I wondered why they were so specific to mention Leonard Sheldon’s name since it’s such a small part. According to Monkees Tripod site, it’s in homage to Sheldon Leonard, producer of television shows such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I Spy. (Possibly Big Bang Theory main character names Leonard and Sheldon are also paying homage.) Peter doesn’t have any money so Leonard offers to trade him for the guitar. Peter isn’t suspicious at all when Leonard hides from a cop walking by. He makes the trade and leaves with the map. A moment later, Mike walks by and Leonard tries and fails to sell him the guitar. Monkees stand-in David Price is in the background of that scene.

At the dock, Mike, Micky, and Davy pick on Peter for his gullibility. Mike tries to move on, “it’s no use in crying over spilt milk.” Micky and Davy mock Mike for his Fatherly proverb use: “A stitch in time saves nine” and “A watched pot never boils.” Mike announces that they’re going to go find the treasure. Cut to Davy already in the row boat, fantasizing that he’s in the Revolutionary War. Davy doesn’t believe it when the others tell him he’s got too much stuff on the boat, but when they “launch the ship,” at his command, he sinks.

The Monkees row the boat ashore on a deserted island, check the treasure map, and go off in some direction that they hope is north. On the same island, Monte Landis as Major Pshaw sleeps on a wicker chair. Thursday, his right hand man, lazily fans him while watching “Monkee See, Monkee Die,” “The Chaperone,” and “Captain Crocodile” on a television. “Who writes that stuff?” he asks. The writer of this episode was Stanley Ralph Ross, who also wrote the episode “Wild Monkees.”

The Monkees wander the island and accidentally hit a trip wire, which alerts Major Pshaw to their presence. At the hut, Pshaw jumps up from his chair, shouting “Sound the alarm!” Thursday plays the “Charge!” cavalry bugle call on a trumpet. In the chaos, Pshaw accidentally fires his rifle.

As Pshaw and Thursday hunt for the Monkees, Pshaw explains that he’s been on the island for ten years looking for the treasure and he’s not going to let anyone steal it. Thursday is an admittedly politically incorrect stereotype of a “native” islander, but his costume includes some unexpected touches, such as a kilt and black boots. The relationship between Pshaw and Thursday is a parody of the 18th century fantasy story, Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. Crusoe is shipwrecked on the “Island of Despair,” [It’s not going to show up in any tourist brochures – Editor’s Note]” and in one of his adventures he rescues and befriends a native islander and names him “Friday.” Well, Friday is both Crusoe’s friend and servant. (It’s a complicated relationship.) In “Monkees Marooned,” Thursday is clearly at least twice as smart as Pshaw, and I imagine that he’s really from Los Angeles and hangs around Pshaw for some scheme of his own.

As the Monkees swat at insects, Mike casually sings the theme to a 1950s’ television show called Jungle Jim. Monkees director of photography, Irving Lippman, was director of photography for Jungle Jim as well as cinematographer for a couple of Tarzan movies in 1966-67. Micky uses his insect spray and discovers it attracts insects. The editors treat us to footage of a stop-motion Pterodactyl, just to make it more ridiculous. Distracted, the Monkees step right into Pshaw’s net and Pshaw pulls them up with a crane.

At Pshaw’s hut, he announces to the Monkees that it’s his practice to shoot all trespassers. Davy pleads, as a fellow Englishman, for a head start. (Scotsman Landis plays Pshaw with a British accent.) Thursday has a cringe-worthy line: “White man speaks with straight tongue.” But his words convince Pshaw, who agrees to be “it.” Pshaw starts counting as though it were a game of hide and seek. The Monkees run off and hide on the island. This bit is a parody of the “The Most Dangerous Game” [Let’s not forget Deadly Prey! – Editor’s Note] short story by Richard Connell (1924). The main character, Samuel Rainsford, is stranded on a deserted island and hunted by General Zaroff and his servant, Ivan. Too bad Pshaw is only a Major.

The Monkees rush for the shore but find their boat is missing, “It’s gone!” Peter starts to cry and Mike advises that crying won’t get him anywhere. Micky points out (showbiz-reference style), “I don’t know, look what it did for Barbara Stanwyck.” Speaking of references, this episode is also a parody of Gilligan’s Island, the popular 1960’s television show about seven stranded castaways. (You know, in case you never heard of it.) Honestly, I would have appreciated fewer Hollywood/literary references and more actual story.

Next, the Monkees come across episode director James Frawley, dressed in white safari garb. Mike inquires, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” For the record, Dr. Livingstone was an 18th-Century British missionary, explorer, anti-slavery crusader, scientific investigator, and national hero. (Geez, now I feel like an underachiever.) While in Africa, Dr. David Livingstone lost contact with the outside world and journalist Henry Morton Stanley was sent to look for him. Finding him in Ujiji, Tanzania, Stanley’s legendary first words to him were “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Frawley, dressed more like Stanley than Livingstone, introduces himself as Dr. Schwarzkopf and tries to sell his services to the uninterested Monkees.

Pshaw and Thursday stop to ask a stock-footage snake where the Monkees went; the snake “points” with his tail. Thursday is unimpressed with his morals, calling him a “dirty snake in the grass.” Meanwhile, Mike suggests the Monkees split up. The other three misinterpret that the band is over and Micky starts singing The Monkees theme. Mike clarifies they have a better shot at hiding individually, and they head off in different directions. As usual, Mike’s job in this episode is to be the voice of reason while the others act like children.

At this point, it would have been nice if the Monkees had used some creativity. Maybe they could have come up with a plan to stop Pshaw from killing them or trick him into giving them a boat or other way off the island; in other words take over the situation as they have been known to do. Instead, they meet another wacky character/walking literary reference. A Tarzan-like jungle call scares the Monkees back into a huddle. Kimba, a senior-citizen version of Tarzan, the iconic jungle hero of novels, comics, films, and much more, comes swinging in on a vine and crashes in the trees.

Kimba of the Jungle speaks a long sentence in a “strange” tongue, but Peter understands him. He asks Kimba to repeat himself; Kimba just says “Kretch.” Peter translates an entire back-story: Kimba was left behind by a movie company, and the actress who played his wife ran off with a casting director. Mike points out “All he said was Kretch!” Peter, “Well, it’s not the word, it’s the way he said it.” Kimba agrees to hide them. They hear gunshots, and there’s a funny sight gag as the sound turns out to be Thursday playing the noise on a tape recorder.

After pulling Kimba out of quicksand, Mike explains that Pshaw’s trying to kill them. Kimba agrees to use his Tarzan-like powers to call the animals for help, “Apes, lions, elephants.” He calls but they get no help from these stock footage animals: a sleeping lion, an ape making an exasperated gesture, and an elephant heading away. The Monkees are left holding cute little animals: a chicken, rabbit, cat, and a puppy. It’s quite a made-for-Tiger Beat moment. (Well, maybe not the chicken.) Micky notices their footprints and freaks that they’ve been going in circles. The others break the fourth wall to explain that it’s just a small set. They mention The Lone Ranger and how he always rides by the same rock, and so on.

Thursday and Pshaw split up in order to search better. Fortunately, the Monkees run into Thursday first. Davy bounces off Thursday’s impressive torso and asks, “Didn’t I see you in a Stewart Granger movie?,” referring to shipwreck movie, The Little Hut. Davy asks if he left “Major P-shaw,” and setting up a running gag, Mike corrects him, “Shaw!” Thursday knows where the boat is and decides they can all escape when the Major goes to sleep. He wants to join them. Yeah! Though I do wish the Monkees were the ones coming up with ideas, it being their show and all.

I really enjoy Rupert Crosse, the charming and funny actor who played Thursday. Sadly, he died in 1973. Interesting Monkees-related trivia, Rupert Crosse later co-starred on the television show The Partners as Detective George Robinson. Another Monkees guest cast actor, Godfrey Cambridge (the parking lot attendant from “It’s a Nice Place to Visit”), was originally cast in that role but he didn’t get along with the star and show creator – none other than Get Smart’s Don Adams. Crosse was also a good friend of actor and Head co-writer Jack Nicholson and was one of the actors Nicholson mentioned in his Oscar speech for As Good as It Gets.

Thursday hides the Monkees in the Major’s hut, figuring it’s the one place Pshaw won’t look. But Pshaw comes in firing his gun and asks if they have any last words. They all start muttering different things: “Mary had a little lamb,” “Four scores and seven years ago” etc. Thursday says, “Sock it to me” over and over, a phrase used in the Monkees tune “Goin’ Down” and of course in “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. (Phrase popularized by Laugh-in after this episode aired.)

Pshaw suggests his methods of killing them, inviting quick cut-away fantasies. Hurray, fantasies! They didn’t do these as much in season two. Pshaw’s first suggestion, boiling in polyunsaturated oil, leads to a shot of Davy bathing in a pot on the beach. Peter gets a manicure at Pshaw’s suggestion of “bamboo under the fingernails.” Pshaw’s threat to “expose you to the ants” results in a scene Mike politely-awkwardly greeting a small group of “aunts.” No one is better at politely awkward than Mike. The most absurd suggestion is the “tongue lashing” the Pshaw gives Micky.

Peter realizes Pshaw is looking for the treasure without a map, so he offers his. Pshaw quotes Looney Tunes character Sylvester the Cat with his shout of, “Suffering Succotash!” The treasure was right under the hut. After two seconds of digging with bare hands, Davy declares he’s found it and they bring out a wooden chest. Pshaw dreams of gold but when he opens it, an old woman in a Jane costume pops out and hits Pshaw with an umbrella. Jane, played by Georgia Schmidt, is Kimba’s leading lady. Kimba and Jane have a romantic reunion and the Monkees happily look on. A romp to “Daydream Believer” (John Stewart) begins. This is the second episode in a row that ended with the Monkees reuniting a couple. How sweet.

In the romp, various characters come out of the trunk, including Peter Tork’s stand-in David Pearl as a photographer. They also bring back the guy in the gorilla suit, previously seen in “Monkees on the Line” and “Monkees Chow Mein.” The romp itself is pointless; the story already wrapped up. There’s a shot of Micky crossing the wooden bridge edited with shot of traffic below from the “Case of the Missing Monkee.” We also see our old friend, Reptilicus.

In the tag sequence, Peter runs into Leonard Sheldon on the street again, who offers to sell him Liverpool. Peter has learned something and he summons the cop from the beginning. The cop turns around and tries to sell him Cleveland. Peter walks off in disgust. Yeah Peter! Next, is the Rainbow Room performance of “What am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round” (Murphey/Castleman) with the Mexican cantina décor from “It’s a Nice Place to Visit” in the background.

“Monkees Marooned” has a lot of good lines and sight gags as well as funny performances from the guest cast. It’s still watchable, but my complaint is that the Monkees are so passive in “Monkees Marooned.” Everything just happens to them once they get to the island. They spend a lot of time reacting to the weirdness of Pshaw, Kimba, and the delightful Thursday. There’s no point where they ever try to fool or thwart Pshaw; their own brand of craziness never gets the chance to come out and play. Even when the Monkees are innocent victims of some villain, at some point in an episode I expect them to execute a scheme of their own; it’s a bummer that it never happened in this one. Literary and Hollywood references aren’t enough to make an episode work.

by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examines the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.

 

NEW PODCAST: “Save The Texas Prairie Chicken”

attwaters_prairie_chicken_lynn_mcbride2

This is BlissVille, Misadventures In BlissVille, an American variety podcast presentation that premiered December 5th of the year 2014 featuring host David Lawler and guests including Colin Hall, Bronwyn Knox, Andrew La Ganke, Nicole Phelps, Sarah La Puerta, Alex Saltz, Mark Jeacoma, and Denny Spangler, who is with us tonight to discuss all-things-Monkees.  I’ve got two Michiganders on one podcast, Denny and my wife, Bronwyn.  Basically it’s a shameless plug for Bronwyn’s new series, “Monkees vs. Macheen”, exclusively on BlissVille, which, I think basically means I’m the Raybert to her Nesmith.

So the Sixties were hip, dig?  Lots-a crazy cats, dig?  Crazy drugs – MDMA, which was a purer form of Ecstasy, if I’m not mistaken.  You could take pills.  You could buy pills at the drug store without having to show your I.D.  I wasn’t there, but that’s what I’m told.

I wonder if we can talk about Michael Nesmith without getting sued?  He seems to keep a close eye on YouTube.  “Elephant Parts” is an extremely difficult show to find.  It is available in a very limited run on DVD, the price is high so I’m guessing another run will not be in the offing, perhaps Blu-Ray if the 50th anniversary Monkees box set sells, but when you try to look at clips from “Elephant Parts”, you’ll get a nasty notice saying, “This video was removed at the request of Michael Nesmith”.  He has a net worth of $50 million, but whatever!

In the years before Cable Television, higher ratings and viewership were easier to assess.  There were only three networks, and some haphazard attempts to create fourth networks, such as Dumont, but it was mainly CBS and NBC, later ABC; the running average of viewership hovered between 55 and 60 million viewers, divided between the three television networks in the mid-to-late sixties, the time when The Monkees was broadcast, and I believe The Monkees was broadcast in a very easy time slot for their viewers, which was mainly kids and young adults.  The show aired on Monday nights as 7:30PM, and handily won it’s time slot every week, running against a western called The Iron Horse and Gilligan’s Island.

Written by: David Lawler with Bronwyn Knox and Denny Spangler
Audio Clips: “Save The Texas Prairie Chicken” uploaded to YouTube by classical56, “Save The Texas Prairie Chicken (Outtakes) from the episode, “Monkees on the Wheel”, “(Theme From) The Monkees” (Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart), “Don’t Call On Me” (Michael Nesmith, John London), “Randy Scouse Git” (Micky Dolenz), Excerpt from “The Monkees Watch Their Feet”, Excerpt from “Fairy Tale”, “My Heart Will Go On” (James Horner, Will Jennings), “For Pete’s Sake” (Peter Tork, Joey Richards).