Norman Lear and Alex Haley's PALMERSTOWN, U.S.A. Returns On getTV
There were few writers more influential on American television in the 1970s than Norman Lear and Alex Haley. Lear’s creative hot streak began with All In The Family in 1971 and continued through the decade with top-rated sitcoms like Sanford And Son and Good Times. Haley made history with Roots, the epic 1977 miniseries based on his novel. It was the most-watched primetime television series in TV history, earned a record 37 Emmy nominations, and kicked off the miniseries boom of the late ‘70s.
So it was big news in 1980 when these two visionaries joined forces for a weekly drama set during the Great Depression. Palmerstown, U.S.A. was based on Haley’s childhood experiences in rural Tennessee, and told the story of an African American family and a white family living – at times uneasily – in a Southern town. Lear developed the series and Haley created it and served as executive producer with Ronald Rubin (Room 222, James At 16).
“It was Alex’s notion, because he had lived through it, to take the white boy and the black boy from the age of seven through the beginning of puberty, (when they) could not have been closer,” Lear told the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2009. “And then they find themselves being splintered by the culture as puberty dawns.”
Sadly, the story never got that far. Though it was critically acclaimed and won an Emmy, Palmerstown was cancelled by CBS after two short seasons. Only 17 episodes were produced, and those programs have remained mostly unseen since their original network broadcast. Until now.
Beginning this Sunday, getTV will present every episode of Palmerstown U.S.A., just as audiences saw them 38 years ago. The series kicks off with the two-part pilot in primetime on February 18 and then settles into its regular timeslot of 12:30 pm ET Sunday afternoons beginning February 25. We can’t call this delightful series “lost,” but it has been a Holy Grail for classic TV fans, Lear completists, and Haley fans for decades. Happily, it does not disappoint.
Writing about the second season premiere, The New York Times called Palmerstown – the “U.S.A.” was dropped for season two – “somewhere between Little House On The Prairie and The Waltons.” It’s an apt comparison, particularly with Earl Hamner Jr.’s autobiographical The Waltons. Both share a period setting, use a general store as the town square, and tell tales of the best and worst aspects of small town life. (They also shared multiple writers, a film editor, director, story consultant, and a handful of supporting actors.) But what makes Palmerstown unique is its unflinching commitment to depicting the racial inequities of the era, week in and week out.
In the pilot episode we meet shopkeeper W.D. Hall (Beeson Carroll) and blacksmith Luther Freeman (Bill Duke), a white man and a black man who are as friendly as is possible in the American South in 1935. While Luther and W.D. share a tentative relationship, their wives are friends and confidants. Bessie Freeman (Jonelle Allen) is a midwife and mother of three - shy teenager Diana (Star-Shemah Bobatoon), nine-year-old Booker T. (Jermain H. Johnson), and a newborn (nicknamed Pumpkin). W.D.’s wife Coralee (Janice St. John) is a former teacher with two children of her own – headstrong Willy-Joe (Michael J. Fox) and younger brother David (Brian G. Wilson) – with a third on the way when the series begins. Bessie even delivers Coralee’s baby in the pilot episode, despite Luther’s fears of ramifications if she doesn’t survive.
Early episodes play like self-contained feature films, with the town’s racial dynamics depicted through the experiences of the young boys. As time passed, the series evolved into a more traditional episodic drama, with some (welcome) soapy elements. Other villagers were added to the recurring cast, including W.D.’s bootlegging sister Sarah “Widder” Brown (Iris Korn), mayor (and mortician) Virgil Quade (Macon McCalman), and Luther’s hired man Hoss (Otis Young, known to getTV viewers as bounty hunter Jemal David on The Outcasts).
The series also has an unusually strong collection of guest stars, including Gerald McRaney as a townsperson, David Caruso as a thieving drifter, Danny Glover as an ex-con, Alfre Woodard as Bessie’s childhood friend, Fionnula Flanagan as W.D.’s former girlfriend, and Michael Constantine (who starred in executive producer Ron Rubin’s Room 222) as a government revenue inspector who courts Widder Brown. In a two-part episode written by Haley, Morgan Freeman plays a Negro League baseball star who challenges the Palmerstown team (including Scatman Crothers) to a game with high racial stakes. And, in perhaps the most touching episode of a series that is never short on tears, Louis Gossett Jr. plays an Army veteran who returns to Palmerstown to claim land stolen from his family. (Gossett was Emmy-nominated for his performance.)
“Outsiders never did fit in here,” the sheriff (Kenneth White) says when a Chinese family moves to Palmerstown. But while issues of race and class are always appropriately front and center, Palmerstown tackles other social problems of the time (and today) as well, including poverty, epidemics, revenge crimes, statutory rape, and teen pregnancy. While the stories are powerful and emotionally resonant, the storytelling is never preachy or heavy-handed. In fact, as the series progresses, it takes on a lighthearted spirit that occasionally borders on comedy.
Duke, who became a director and action film star (Commando, Predator), communicates more with his silence than other actors do with page-long monologues. Carroll (perhaps best known as Hot Lips’ husband Donald Penobscott on M*A*S*H) and Janice St. John navigate the complex racial politics of their storylines deftly and with grace. Unknown Star-Shemah Bobatoon is a delight as Bessie and Luther’s daughter, particularly in an episode where she discovers blues singing. Even young Michael J. Fox – a year before Family Ties – gets a showcase episode, when Willy-Joe proposes to a pregnant teen.
Palmerstown was like nothing else on primetime TV in 1980 and like very little on TV today. But while the years have only burnished its legacy, it’s been impossible to find. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to experience a television landmark that brought together two legends.
“We became great friends,” Lear said of his working relationship with Haley. “We both treasured [Palmerstown].”
Palmerstown debuts Sunday, February 18 with a special primetime broadcast at 7:30 pm ET. It airs in its regular timeslot -- 12:30pm ET every Sunday – beginning February 25. And don’t miss Norman Lear’s All In The Family, Sanford And Son, and Good Times weekdays on getTV!