Thursday, December 27, 2012
Requiem for Richard Avery
Today is the 33rd anniversary of the premiere of "Knots Landing" on CBS. Its first episode aired on December 27, 1979. As I have written about before, I preferred the early seasons of this show when it was originally about four married couples living in a Southern California cul-de-sac. I wasn't as interested in the show when it started phasing out its original cast members and creating more and more larger-than-life characters and situations that seemed at odds with the earlier low-key storylines. One character who I wish never left the series was the troubled, complex attorney Richard Avery, played by actor John Pleshette. During its initial run, I didn't like the Richard Avery character at all. I found him very uncomfortable to watch as his character was continually denigrating his wife Laura. Maybe my discomfort with Richard and his storyline with Laura was because he came across as so real. Now that I'm older and have a better appreciation for such nuanced characters, I think that Richard Avery was one of the best characters to have ever appeared on "Knots Landing." He's definitely one of my favorite characters on the show.
Richard Avery started out life on "Knots Landing" as an ambitious, status-conscious attorney who took his wife Laura for granted and used her as his constant whipping-boy and a scapegoat for his own insecurities and disappointments. Among other things, he cheated on her with neighbor Abby Cunningham (Donna Mills), flaunted his affair with Abby in front of Laura and the other neighbors, resented her success as a realtor when he was unable to support his family on his own, and was a general embarrassment for all involved. But Pleshette made Richard fascinating and sympathetic despite all of his shortcomings. Over time, Richard's good qualities started to emerge. He was a loving and devoted father to the sons he had with Laura, he proved to be a loyal friend to Karen Fairgate (Michele Lee) after she was widowed (a development no one would have ever expected when Karen constantly came to Laura's defense at Richard's emotional abuse), and he eventually grew to become someone who genuinely cared about his neighbors on Seaview Circle once he stopped obsessing about his professional advancement and became concerned about the people around him. In turn, the other neighbors, particularly Val (Joan Van Ark) and Karen, also grew to care deeply about Richard's well-being.
In the episode entitled "Night," which was written by John Pleshette, the mentally unstable Richard holds Laura hostage in their home at gunpoint. While everyone around them remain concerned about Laura, both Karen and Val remain concerned about Richard. They both realize that Laura is the stronger person in the end, and that Richard is the vulnerable one more susceptible to being hurt at whatever the outcome is with the hostage crisis. I also recall the earlier episode where Richard, sensing that his neighbor Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford) is on the verge of having an affair with Abby, reminds Gary of the special love he has for his wife Valene and warns him of the pitfalls of being involved with Abby. Richard and Gary had always had an awkward relationship from the beginning of the series, when Richard attempted to ingratiate himself with his new neighbor because of his ties to the oil-rich Ewing family. This didn't sit well with Gary. Richard concern for Gary's well-being reflects the degree to which the character grew from the moment we first met him, as well as his eventual regret at hurting Laura for having the affair with Abby.
Some of my favorite moments with Richard include the scene in the Season 3 premiere at the hospital where Richard brings Karen croissants and coffee after she has been up all night worrying about Sid (Don Murray) after he has sustained severe injuries in a car accident. Richard's typically sardonic nature is used to good effect here as he uses it to mask the vulnerable side that he reveals to Karen because of his concern for Karen and Sid. Another occurs later in the season during the 1981 Christmas episode when he surprises Laura on Christmas morning, with a brand new blue Buick Regal coupe. They take it for a drive and then return home, content and happy, until Laura's boss at the realty company Scooter (Allan Miller) shows up with with a brand new Mercedes sedan, as a gift for her job performance that year. Richard swallows his pride and puts on a brave front when he urges Laura to accept Scooter's gift. Richard still wants her to enjoy the new Mercedes even though his efforts to do something thoughtful for Laura have been overshadowed by Scooter's generosity. In both scenes, Pleshette really makes you feel for Richard. Despite his many flaws, he also has enough good qualities that make it difficult to completely write him off.
Much of the success of the Richard Avery character is due to the immense contributions of John Pleshette, a multi-talented powerhouse who also wrote and directed several episodes. More than any other actor, Pleshette understood how the middle-class suburban milieu of the first four seasons of "Knots Landing" was what distinguished it from other prime time soaps of the era. I attended the Museum of TV and Radio tribute to "Knots Landing" in 1995 and I vividly recall when Pleshette and Donna Mills responded, in-unison, to a question from the audience regarding how much creative input the actors had with their characters on the show. Mills said "Not enough!" at the exact time Pleshette said "Too much!" I suspect Pleshette's comment reflected how the actors on "Knots Landing," especially Mills, influenced the show to where it became more glamorous and upscale like "Dallas" and lost some of its distinction. I also believe that Pleshette's comment reflects how the actors added too many of their own individual personal qualities to their characters to a degree where they started to play themselves and not their original characters anymore. For example, Val lost whatever earthiness she had from her days on "Dallas" and became weirder and more neurotic over time, which I believe reflects the self-indulgent quality that comes across in Joan Van Ark's interviews.
In contrast, even though Richard developed into a gourmet chef, which reflects John Pleshette's real life acclaimed culinary skills, I don't think this ever distracted from, or seemed out-of-place, for the character. If anything, it blended perfectly with Richard's ambitions to someday enjoy the finer things in life. It didn't contradict the character to a degree where I felt Pleshette was playing himself, and not Richard anymore. Pleshette always kept his eye on the ball where "Knots Landing" was concerned. As mentioned earlier on this blog, I once met Pleshette at a bookstore in Los Angeles and chatted with him about "Knots Landing." I told him that I thought the show wasn't nearly as good when he and James Houghton and Kim Lankford left and it became more about corporate, rather than suburban, intrigue. Pleshette was extremely polite and gracious. I sensed he was both appreciative and a little uneasy about still being identified with "Knots Landing" after all these years. He thanked me for my comments and said "We gave it, or at least tried to give it, some depth in the first few years before it became 'Dallas in California.'"
Pleshette needn't feel awkward about his contributions to the series. The episodes he wrote were some of the finest from the early seasons of "Knots Landing." He not only understood his character well, but also had a keen insight into the other characters so that he was able to write good moments for his fellow actors. I also don't believe that Pleshette allowed Richard to be more sympathetic over time because he was afraid of playing a jerk on the series. I simply think it's because Pleshette is smart enough to understand that all people, good or bad, have different sides to their personalities and that it's more effective to allow those different nuances to come into play at appropriate times. Even when Richard became a more sympathetic character, especially because of his supportive friendship with the widowed Karen, he still didn't make life easy for Laura. In addition to having a nervous breakdown and holding Laura hostage in their house at gunpoint when she was pregnant with their second child, in the next season when he later opened a restaurant, he went behind Laura's back and signed a promissory note with Abby to get a loan to pay for his extravagant restaurant expenses. He also mistreated her friend Ciji (Lisa Hartman) when he suspected them of having an affair. But, through it all, he was always portrayed as a loving and devoted father even if he was a lousy husband. As with all great fictional characters, Richard wasn't all good or all bad, but a nuanced, complex human being.
Even Janet Baines (Joanna Pettet), the police detective investigating Ciji's murder, ultimately had more sympathy for Richard than she had for Laura, when Laura misplaces her rage at being abandoned by Richard by falsely accusing him of murdering Ciji. Baines is disgusted at Laura's eagerness to blame the crime on Richard, characterizing him as a "poor, unloved guy who couldn't cope." The fact that an outsider like Janet Baines recognized Richard's sympathetic qualities demonstrates the degree to how Richard had changed from when we first met him on the premiere episode of "Knots Landing" almost four years earlier, when we would never have found anything redeemable about him. In 1983, after four years with "Knots Landing," Richard had one of the best exits scenes of any regular character on a TV series. Realizing his marriage with Laura was unsalvageable, he packs a suitcase, leaves the house in the middle of the night, with a framed photo of his family tucked under his arm, and drives out of the cul-de-sac. Before he leaves, Richard stops the car, gets out and takes a look at the street that was once his home, and disappears into the night. It was one of the few exit scenes for a major character on the series where the show's suburban setting was effectively utilized. The street where Richard had forged some of his strongest friendships, where his marriage had unraveled, and which symbolized the pain and suffering he had alternately experienced and caused during the years he lived there, was now a place he had to escape from. Even though Richard later returned in 1987 for a pair of episodes marking Laura's death, it was still a haunting exit scene worthy of a character who had given "Knots Landing" some of its finest moments.