The prime-time television world of the 1980s was full of high fashion with massively padded shoulders, bed-hopping cads, family murder mysteries and endless illegal business dealings. “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Falcon Crest” used a sensational approach to rule the airwaves.
Then there was “Fresno,” a six-part miniseries that poked fun at the clichés of the prime-time soaps through the story of the raisin war between the Kensingtons and the Canes. Wednesday is the 30th anniversary of the production starring Carol Burnett, Charles Grodin, Dabney Coleman, Jeffrey Jones, Anthony Heald, Michael Richards, Teri Garr, Gregory Harrison (who spends the miniseries shirtless) and Bill Paxton.
It was Barry Kemp, the man behind the network comedy “Coach,” who came up with the idea for the parody after reading that Fresno was the worst place to live of 277 cities in the country. Fresno was also the heart of raisin production, giving Kemp his key to creating the series.
There was just one problem: “Fresno” flopped in the ratings. It did so poorly that it was only rerun two other times, the last one with a laugh track added to get across that it’s supposed to be a comedy.
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Overall ratings for CBS in November 1986 dropped like a rock because “Fresno” and “Monte Carlo” got some of the worst ratings of any miniseries that were televised during the 1985-86 season.
What was wrong with “Fresno”? It was a parody of a genre that had already become a parody on its own. The storylines on “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Falcon Crest” reached outlandish levels with incredible plots, like the one that wiped out a full season of events with a shower sequence.
John J. O’Connor’s review for the New York Times said: “ ‘Fresno’ comes out looking like the kind of comedy idea that years ago could have been condensed into a 20-minute sketch on “The Carol Burnett Show.’ ”
There was a good reason for the comparison to the popular variety program. Burnett was cast to play matriarch Charlotte Kensington, who tries to hold on to the family raisin farm despite economic woes, a battle for water rights, a murder trial, death threats, hidden identities, sexual tension, her outlandish children (real and adopted) and the death of her husband.
Kent’s intent was to parody the prime-time soap opera genre, not mine jokes at the expense of Fresno.
Although the miniseries was about Fresno, only a few days of the production were shot in the city. Those included a sequence at the downtown water tower where Cane Kensington (Grodin) was being pushed to his death. One of the thugs trying to kill him was played by a then-unknown Michael Richards.
Burnett, who spent only one night in Fresno during the filming, jumped at the chance to be part of the miniseries because as a California native she knew about Fresno and she liked that the script was a parody of the prime-time soaps.
Anyone who has seen “The Carol Burnett Show” knows how much Burnett loves parody and farce.
“I thought this was one of the funniest, most clever scripts I had read. I love high satire. Even if something was funny on its own level, we would make it even funnier,” Burnett says. “The only problem was that the cast was so terrific, it was hard to shoot a scene without laughing. All I remember is it was so much fun. We didn’t improvise a lot because it was so well-written and so well-rehearsed.”
We did get do improvise a few scenes.
Carol Burnett on making the miniseries “Fresno”
The pokes at the dramas even included the way Burnett dressed. All of the prime-time soaps featured outlandish fashions for the women, whether they were attending a ball or eating breakfast. Burnett knew her “Fresno” look would be perfect since Bob Mackie, the chief designer on her variety show, created all of her looks. Burnett laughs and says the only odd thing was Mackie kept making her wear hats.
His designs were good enough that they earned “Fresno” one of its five Emmy nominations. It also got nods for hairstyling, art direction, editing and sound editing.
Despite Burnett having a good time while filming and hearing only positive reactions after the miniseries aired, the compliments were from the minority. Most of the reactions were negative.
Just like Burnett, locals who worked on the production enjoyed making the miniseries.
One local who got to work with Burnett was FOX26 sports anchor Ralph Wood. He was working as a sports reporter at CBS47 when the station got word a miniseries based on Fresno was to be shot for CBS. Wood traveled to Los Angeles to interview producers Kemp and Mark Ganzel. After the interview, he was asked to play a reporter in the production.
“I about fainted,” Wood says.
On the day of filming, the writers and producers realized the script called for “Reporter No. 1” to be grabbed by the blouse. They decided to change the role from a background reporter to one with a speaking role. The change gave Wood a lot of dialogue to deliver. Part of the scene was shot in front of the water tower.
Wood learned acting isn’t as glamorous as it looks. He had to do the scene in 104-degree temperatures while standing on a milk carton in front of the water tower. He did it so many times that he started to lose his voice. A helicopter ruined the first attempt and then crowd noise and failing light affected the others.
Because Wood’s scene was supposed to be unfolding at a courthouse, he had to travel to Los Angeles for a second day of shooting. He returned one more time to loop the film, a process of recording clean dialogue, where he got to work with Burnett again.
The most noticeable flaw in the series, Wood notes, is that between the scenes shot in Fresno and the ones in Los Angeles, the CBS47 lapel pin and cap for the microphone that had been created for the scenes were lost. His microphone looks different from scene to scene.
Wood made a few dollars, got his Screen Actors Guild card and his mother was contacted by relatives in Sweden after the miniseries was broadcast overseas. It didn’t convince him to change careers.
“My acting showed me I should be a sports reporter,” he says. “But it was one of the great experiences of my life.”
Wood wasn’t the only local to get cast. Dale E. Doig, who was the mayor of Fresno, had a role as did The Fresno Bee’s Penny Raven, who was reporting for the newspaper on the casting of local extras for a few scenes of the miniseries. When some of the extras didn’t show up, the casting directors asked her if she would play a reporter in a scene.
“A few weeks later, I got a call from them saying they needed a familiar Fresno face and would I come to Los Angeles to be in more scenes, “ Raven says.
She thought she would work a couple of days, but it turned into six weeks.
The filming was only the start. CBS47 hosted a large watch party at the Saroyan Theatre designed to look like a movie premiere. Years later, Bill Paxton, who attended the local premiere, still remembers the advertising line for the miniseries.
“The power. The passion. The produce,” Paxton says. “I still eat raisins to this day.”
The local affiliate also put together a 30-minute behind-the-scenes special that aired with the miniseries.
Lanny Larson, who was The Fresno Bee’s TV columnist at the time, recalls thinking the miniseries was hilarious:
“I started the Broadcast Beat column in October 1986 and so ‘Fresno: The Miniseries’ was ‘Bigger Than Almost Anything’ for us. I anticipated that it would be good because it was being released during a ratings month, for which major networks typically presented their best stuff. Others locally criticized me for not seeing it as a cruel slam on Fresno. And if you were sensitive, your tolerance was tested in the opening scene as a Spanish explorer is brought wild grapes, which he spits out, saying, ‘They taste like Fresno.’ I want to see it all again because I enjoyed it the first time, and because it was a foundation of the best job I ever had.”