By Harriett Heithaus
Naples Daily News
When you hear those “as seen on TV” ads, the announcers could be talking about Jerry Rannow.
Rannow (pronounced ruh-NOW) is an alumnus of three classic TV shows that will run forever in syndication: “My Three Sons,”“The Beverly Hillbillies”and “The Carol Burnett Show.” Rannow not only starred on TV, he wrote for it: “Welcome Back, Kotter”; “Happy Days”; “Room 222”; “All in the Family”; “Love Boat”; “Harper Valley PTA”; “Eight Is Enough” and “Head of the Class.” “Love, American Style” was a double play: He both wrote for and starred in it.
You don’t have to wait for a cycle of ME TV or Nickelodeon episodes to see Rannow, however. He is onstage as the male lead of The Naples Players upcoming production of the two-character “Kalamazoo” from March 29 to April 22. The Michelle Kholos Brooks-Kelly Younger comedy has the genes of the shows Rannow acted in and wrote for: A lot of humor, a little poignancy and some pointed lessons.
A story for Southwest Florida
In this case the “students” are a senior couple, Peg and Irv, who master the wobbly dance of courtship only to find their biggest obstacles aren’t their Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths. The fences are being built by their children, who had urged them to get out of the house in the first place.
Both Rannow and his costar, Debbie Garnett, said they feel the play is relevant to romance at any age (the two even have to record a dating video). But “it’s definitely something people living here face,” Garnett said of Southwest Florida.
Garnett has been in such Naples Players works as “Same Time, Next Year” and “Steel Magnolias,” had a bit of extra empathy for the role of Peg: Garnett has lost her own husband in the past year. Rannow liked the play because of its similarity in tone to shows he had worked on and written.
Rannow, who moved to Naples just three years ago with his wife, Dee, was looking to flex his acting muscles. It’s not that they’ve ever atrophied: He’s been performing in Etc., Naples Players’ readers theater. He also acted in his native Racine, Wisconsin, regional theater after retiring from TV writing to pen two Hollywood help books: “Writing Television Comedy” and “Surviving Hollywood: Your Ticket to Success.”
It’s not, Rannow emphasized, that you’re done with Hollywood when you retire.
“At some point, it’s sort of done with you,” he explained. “The younger people move in, and you have to say, ‘Oh, I think it’s time to go.’
“Ageism has always been a very big issue for the Writers’ Guild. Once you reach 40 you’re pretty much done,” he continued. “What happens is that studio executives are always very young.
“And they don’t want to go in and have a meeting with their father. They want a meeting with their buddy,” he added, chuckling.
“That’s why you have so many shows focused on the young. You end up with sitcoms about dating — things that appeal to young people.”
“It’s hills and valleys. You hope to have enough hills to survive to the valleys,” he said of Hollywood work.
Hot dogs and ad libs
“Comparatively, I had a longer run than most,” Rannow said, relaxing in the men’s dressing room before a rehearsal Tuesday. “I spent 30 years in California, 10 of it acting and 20 of it writing.”
During that time, he created commercials for everything from Hallmark cards to the now-defunct Barrelhead root beer. During his early years, he sold hot dogs at Dodger Stadium to make ends meet and met the famous Major League Baseball players and managers who would cement his lifelong love of the sport. (In fact, baseball figures into his third career, novel writing, for a plot in his upcoming Springer McKay detective series.)
He remembers skit roles with Jonathan Winters, a comedian with a wildly creative sense of humor. For Winters’ short-lived show, Rannow became Billy Fairfield, foil to Winters’ quirky “Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy.”
“The scripts were terrible. But Johnny was funny. His ad-libs were what put them over. I thought to myself, ‘I can do better than that,” Rannow said of the scripts.
And so he did. Rannow’s first pitch, to “Love, American Style,” a weekly shopping cart of short romantic stories, impressed its producers enough to offer him the job of story editor.
Not all proposals went so smoothly. Rannow remembers the agony of pitching storylines to Norman Lear, famous as the groundbreaking producer behind shows such as “All in the Family,”“Sanford and Son,” and “Maude.”
“I was scared to death,” Rannow recalled. “And he just sat there looking at me while I talked, not changing his expression at all.” Lear did buy one of his pitches, however, for “All in the Family,’ and bought more after that.
Rannow remembers “Welcome Back, Kotter” as his favorite show to write for.
“The cast was outstanding. The boys were all great,” he said. “John Travolta is probably one of the funniest, most creative comedians I’ve ever known.”
It’s a gift the public knows little about, he acknowledged.
“He would come up with stuff that would just put us away. We’d take out lines just to keep in the stuff he’d put in.”
He also remembers a few of Hollywood’s near-blunders: When he was commissioned to write a story for the news series “Happy Days,” he was given the cast list and told that he didn’t need to write one of the characters in — “They weren’t sure they were going to keep him,” he said.
“So, of course, I went straight for him.”
That character? Fonzie, the straight-talking cream-puff tough that took Henry Winkler to national star status.
If you go
What: Naples Players’ production of a comedy about later-life romance complicated by children and cultures
When: March 29-April 22; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; one Tuesday performance at 7:30 p.m. April 3
Where: Tobye Studio Theatre, 701 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
To buy: naplesplayers.org, 239-263-7990 or at the box office 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekday