Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Ghosts

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Ghosts

Article excerpt

At age 23, Sondheim wrote TV scripts for Topper

On Oct. 9, 1953, the series Topper premiered on the CBS television network and began its two-year run in prime time. The moderately popular show was based on a 1937 film of the same name, starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett and the Oscar-nominated Roland Young in the title role. That film was followed by Topper Takes a Trip (1938), Topper Returns (1941) and finally the genial situation comedy that never hit the top ratings tier but held on for 78 episodes.

Largely forgotten today, Topper nevertheless holds the distinction of being one of the earliest professional credits of Stephen Sondheim, who at 23 wrote or co-wrote 19 of 29 episodes for the first season with Hollywood veteran George Oppenheimer. How this came about involved a certain amount of timing and economic necessity.

By early 1953, Sondheim had concluded two years of study with composer Milton Babbitt. He was an unemployed young man sleeping on a cot in his father's dining room with aspirations of writing. He penned a Hitchcock-like screenplay, The Man with the Squeaky Shoes, and had several other ideas in generative stages. One evening, he accompanied Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein to a dinner party at the home of Random House co-founder Donald Klopfer, where he was introduced to screenwriter George Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, who penned such classic films as Libeled Lady (1936) and A Day at the Races (1937), had just sold a pilot for a new television series, Topper, and he was seeking a co-writer. Ever the thoughtful mentor, Hammerstein encouraged Sondheim to share some of his work with Oppenheimer on the chance that a job might be in the offing. Duly impressed, Oppenheimer offered Sondheim a $300 weekly salary. In short order, Sondheim found himself in Los Angeles writing teleplays.

Topper starred the real-life husband-and-wife team of Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys as a ghostly couple killed in an avalanche and who, along with Neil, their Saint Bernard, provided some exceptionally cosmopolitan haunting to banker Cosmo Topper, played by character actor Leo G. Carroll. Though sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco required that these ghosts smoke in every episode, there was little else that was predictable in their weekly antics. …

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