I'm Dickens...He's Fenster followed the comic exploits of two construction workers and bosom buddies, played by John Astin and Marty Ingels. After producing thirty-two side-splittingly hilarious episodes, and despite critics' raves in The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter and Time Magazine, as well as praise from comedy legend Stan Laurel who regarded it as one of the funniest and highly imaginative comedies he'd seen, the show was prematurely cancelled in its first season. By the time its final ratings came in, showing it having beaten popular rating winners Sing Along with Mitch and Route 66 in the same time slot, it was too late to reassemble the cast, who had moved on to other projects - in Astin's case - The Addams Family.
Both Astin and Engels were virtual unknowns when they were teamed up for the series, but quickly won over the critics with reviews lauding their instant rapport and comic timing. But it also became obvious that the network, ABC, had little intention of giving the series time to develop. Towards the end of the series 32-episode run in early 1963, by which time rumours of its cancellation were circling, critic Harvey Pack observed: 'Personally, I'm so used to seeing good go and bad stay that I resigned myself to the demise of the first comedy team actually created by TV, until I saw their episode a few weeks ago about the carpenter's ping-pong team. This classic, which belongs with Bilko and the monkey and Lucy in the candy factory, convinced me that if ABC lets this program fade into limbo, they should lock all their executives in a big screening room and make them watch films of the CBS brass dancing in the streets. If it had been on CBS, it would undoubtedly be in the top ten, and ABC should understand that, against the rest of their schedule, it's one of their biggest hits.
'Even if it folds up the tool kits and disappears, we can thank the show for introducing us to the talented John Astin, Marty Engels, Emmaline Henry and producer-director Leonard Stern. It's a safe bet that all their careers will be helped by the exposure. Last year CBS was about to drop the excellent Dick Van Dyke Show but gave it a second season and now it's a big hit. ABC should do the same for Dickens and Fenster or comedy fans will be entitled to condemn their building.'
Pack wasn't the show's only fan. "A grassroots frolic that could snowball...loaded for guffaws." read The Hollywood Reporter, "Surprise success of the television season," claimed the New York Times and Variety confirmed that "John Astin and Marty Ingels…have one of the video hits of the new season."
Unfortunately, the decision to cancel I'm Dickens...He's Fenster was made by ABC in April 1963. Once they realised their error, it was too late to recommission it with the same cast and so it became a series that was consigned to the long list of one-season shows that history may well recall as a failure. But in I'm Dickens...He's Fenster, that was far from the truth.
In addition to being creator, writer, director and producer on I'm Dickens...He's Fenster, Leonard Stern's remarkable career had included writing for the Abbott and Costello and Ma and Pa Kettle movies in the 40s and 50s, and the classic TV shows The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show. From 1965-1970, Stern was executive producer, writer and director on the classic spy spoof Get Smart. He also created, produced and directed the TV series McMillan & Wife and co-created the immensely popular series of children's game books, Mad Libs.
Although short-lived, I'm Dickens...He's Fenster featured an extraordinary roster of guest stars, many of whom made their television debuts on the show, including: Yvonne Craig (Batgirl from Batman), Harvey Korman (The Carol Burnett Show), Sally Kellerman (MAS*H), Peter Lupus (Mission: Impossible), Lee Meriwether (Batman, The Time Tunnel), Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) and Jim Nabors (The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC). The series also featured such directing talent as Arthur Hiller (Love Story), Jay Sandrich (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls), Norman Abbott, (The Munsters), Claudio Guzman (I Dream of Jeannie) and writers Mel Tolkin (All in the Family), Don Hinkley (The Muppet Show) and Jay Sommers (Green Acres, Ozzie & Harriet).
The series has never been shown in the UK and a 2012 50th anniversary DVD set featuring over 10 hours of content was not made available for the UK market either, but thanks to the Internet a number of episodes can be found on YouTube. They may seem a little dated sixty years on, but if you are a fan of classic sitcoms, you won't be disappointed at the almost slapstick antics of Astin and Engels et al, but you may well lament the missed opportunity of a deserved second season.
Published on February 23rd, 2023. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.