Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
My stamp of approval. Signed, Sealed, Delivered delivers its first season finale on Hallmark Channel tomorrow night (6/22) at 8:00 PM ET with Carol Burnett guest starring. The TV icon, whose legendary variety show helped launch the writing career of Signed creator/producer Martha Williamson (Touched by an Angel), plays the grandmother of Norman, one of the idealistic postal investigators dedicated to uniting lost letters with their intended recipients. It’s a charming and kind show that, surprisingly, has not yet been renewed for a second season. Or perhaps it has been but the renewal notice is lost in the mail. In any event, I urge Hallmark to renew this inventive and heartfelt show.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Eric Mabius, who as the quirky, sensitive intrepid team leader Oliver O’Toole is sort of the (postal) hub around whom the stories and likable supporting characters spin. He spoke to me from Vancouver as the production for this first season was drawing to a close.
JWK: What was it like to work with Carol Burnett?
ERIC MABIUS: She’s still so funny. She is just as present as she always has been. She’s such a physical comedian. She never misses a beat. She is such a professional. I was so excited to be around her…You know, all the cast members were looking at each other once, if not several times, a day going “We are doing a scene right now with Carol Burnett! Pinch me! Are you kidding?!” She’s just so happy to come to work and wants to see everyone around her do a good job. She’s all about striving for excellence. I think that’s definitely a common point between Martha and Carol being friends over the years.
JWK: Carol Burnett is just one of many really big TV stars who have guested on the show so far. Others have included Valerie Harper, Marilu Henner and, from Touched by an Angel, Della Reese and Valerie Bertinelli.
EM: Valerie Harper, we started out with. What a joy! I worked with her many years ago and it was so great to see her again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with so much energy at any age on set. There was an excitement to come to work every day. I hope I have half that (enthusiasm) when I’m her age.
JWK: When did you previously work with Valerie?
EM: I did a movie with Valerie and Jacqueline Bisset called Dancing at the Harvest Moon. That was in (2001).
JWK: What attracted you to the role of Oliver O’Toole on Signed, Sealed, Delivered?
EM: I read the script and I had to talk to Martha right away because…even in the pilot, I knew where she was going. I felt like this is the kind of television that we don’t really have much of. I read the script on an airplane. I had a conference call with her when I landed. We talked, generally at first, about the kind of TV that we miss, the formative television (that) happened with the great shows in the seventies and early eighties. I brought up MASH (and) Hawkeye, the heroic antihero who had an unyielding moral compass and (was) someone who was always trying to do the right thing — even if it was wrapped under the guise of him being a clowning…doctor right behind the battlefield. He very easily could have been a priest in a church somewhere or what have you but, in those circumstances, he was still trying to do his very best amid the mad mist of war…Not to compare the two (characters) certainly but I feel like there was a lot more about Oliver that we didn’t see (about) what shaped him and his choices in life. I felt like, in general, the show was taking on the responsibility we have as creative people…We were being taught without being preached to or talked down to…At least some aspect of Oliver appeals to every man. He’s a good role model that always has the right turn of phrase available in his repertoire. He treats people with respect and patience and kindness and, at the same time, he forces people to strive to be better in their lives — better than they think they can be. I think that’s a very important thing. Maybe it’s where I am in my life. Maybe it’s being a father now. Maybe it’s me not being a child anymore. I just feel like every one of us — all the actors — are so impassioned and passionate about where we’re doing.
JWK: I agree with you. Like MASH, this is a kind show. Hawkeye was irreverent when it came to authority but he was never mean.
EM: No, he wasn’t. He fought against bullies and meanness and those things. He was still imperfect. He was still always trying to do everything he could do and sometimes he fell short but, nevertheless, he kept striving…
…I get asked what one thing would I want audiences to take away from their experience watching (our show) and I say it’s the hope that Martha conveys. There is hope in one’s life, one’s intentions. We can be better than we think we can. I just think, again, the responsibility (of conveying that), has been neglected by a lot of creative people in television. (That’s) not to say there isn’t a place for a lot of shows that are out there but I feel like…that snarky thing that’s passing for what’s cool…I don’t quite understand it. I feel like a lot of television now is about fostering sadistic tendencies. Whether it’s a reality show or a cop drama, it’s about watching other people suffer. I don’t understand why that is because it doesn’t leave one feeling settled or entertained. It leaves one feeling edgy and stirred up and without any focus. You’re feeling a certain way and you don’t know why. There’s no resolution in that and I think that’s irresponsible. I don’t mean to be telling people what they should think or feel at all. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that, when you take people on a journey, you have to give them a beginning, middle and end. You have to. I mean it’s essential for the nature of escapism in television. You’re being delivered from whatever it is you’re taking a break from to watch that TV show.
So, that’s what I think is so important about this show. Everyone from eight to eighty, male (or) female, there’s something for everyone in the show. There’s a character (they) can attach themselves to. There’s aspects of characters and there are circumstantial things that happen that are funny and fun and, obviously, serious things going on (too).
JWK: What I find interesting about Oliver is that he’s sort of sophisticated and suave yet innocent at the same time. He’s like Remington Steele meets Richie Cunningham.
EM: Exactly. That’s great!
JWK: So, I take it that you relate to this character — that you like this guy.
EM: I really do. I think it’s every actor’s responsibility to “like” whatever character they’re playing. Our responsibility is not to judge the characters we’re playing but to play them with all the belief you can. So, absolutely, I think there are definite aspects of Oliver that I hope rub off on me. Writing letters, that type of discourse, is something that I’ve always enjoyed and was raised on and I think is falling to the wayside. Hopefully, (this show) will spark people’s interest in what that thing is. What passes for communication now — a few fast words with no punctuation — is completely impermanent. I think that leads to so many miscommunications (with) no beginnings, middles and ends (unlike) a finely-crafted letter. If you can’t sit down and take the time to organize your thoughts, I don’t know if that’s an interaction worth having…I understand the necessity for Twitter and instant messaging. It’s about convenience. I think the internet has a place. I don’t think it’s an either/or — either you’re a letter writer or an internet user. I think there can be an integration because each has its strengths and weaknesses.
JWK: You mentioned being a father. How many kids to you have?
EM: Two boys.
JWK: How old are they?
EM: Five and seven. They’re a handful. They couldn’t be more different from one another either.
JWK: What are their names?
EM: Maxfield and Rylan. (Rylan) is an old Irish name. We named Maxfield after Maxfield Parrish. My wife’s a painter.
JWK: What kind of shows did you grow up watching? I know one was MASH.
EM: Hands down, that’s one of my favorites…The Waltons was I love watching TV Land and Hallmark because The Waltons was one of those shows I would sit around with my…polish grandmother and (watch). The Waltons was sort of imprinted on my childhood brain. Even shows like Welcome Back, Kotter. I loved that. We had Valerie Bertinelli on the show. She was so much fun to work with, as well — still young and spry and on top of it. She looks like she hasn’t aged a day (since) One Day at a Time. Those shows…it’s kind of hard to put into words…A show like Happy Days, (it may have) ran on too long but I felt like it was pretty important TV making.
JWK: What kind of shows do your kids watch? Do you watch any television with them?
EM: Because of attention spans, I don’t let them watch anything that has commercials. So, if they like a show on TV, we’ll get them on video so that we aren’t told what we should buy. They watch a lot of PBS. They like…Wallace and Gromit, everything that comes out of Aardman, the claymation company. They don’t watch a ton of television.
JWK: I understand you folks live in Massachusetts and are not too caught up in the bubble that can be Hollywood.
EM: No, not at all. We are completely outside of that and that was a real decision on our part. We don’t have any family in California and we realized our parents weren’t getting any younger. We didn’t want to keep depriving them of the company of their grandkids and we moved them back into the environment that my wife and I grew up in. We went to high school together in Amherst. We live in the country and we have three wood stoves and we have a garden and we live near a horse farm. My oldest takes horseback-riding lessons. We’re adjoined by state parks and there’s a local lake where they have their swim lessons. They house my wife grew up in is two miles down the road…It’s the rare mix of the rural and the progressive. It’s a college town, so there are a lot of people living considered lives. There are a lot of writers and professors and farmers. It’s kind of a wonderful place…No one really cares what I do for a living. It’s sort of this odd thing and it doesn’t really come up in conversation because it’s not relevant to where we live.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11