"Please Stand By": Stephen Michael Schwartz & The 1978 Network TV Sitcom-EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW PT. 7
Answering a casting call for a "David Cassidy-type" led to a year on the musical family sitcom, where his real-life father-in-law played his father!
When we last checked in on Stephen Michael Schwartz’s musical trek in the ‘70s, he had been released from his contract by RCA Records after a 1974 album, and four fully-produced songs into an incomplete second album, the following year.
While considering his next career move, Stephen filled his time with odd jobs, as well as the occasional gigs opening for a variety of musical and comedy entertainers, about which more can be read here:
Collaborating with other talented singer/songwriters was another way to keep his talents sharpened in the late ‘70s. Stephen shared five exclusive song demos with Front Row & Backstage recently: “Off the Clef #1” can be accessed by clicking here, and links to the others in the series are in each successive “Off the Clef” feature.
But, this being Hollywood, even Stephen knew it likely wouldn’t be too long before a shot at TV came along!
Say Yes ‘Til You Have To Say No
“The New York-based Improv (still with two dozen locations nationwide), opened in LA by owner Budd Friedman in 1974, was home to all types of artists: Singers, songwriters, comics, poets, and whoever wanted to showcase their talent in front of a live audience.
“As long as you were entertaining and could keep an audience ordering drinks, Budd gave you a spot. I played there often, sometimes with a band, sometimes solo. One night, after I played a well-received set, I came offstage, and was approached by a stunning brunette woman who introduced herself as Eve Brandstein [who, among many other casting/producing/directing credits, is remembered for casting the 1984 rock parody film, This is Spinal Tap].
“She said she was very impressed with my songwriting, and as our conversation continued, she told me she was married to musician, Jef Labes.”
“Just listening to Jef’s piano solo on the title song alone sends me into a delightful trance. So, Eve had me even before she proceeded with her real reason for approaching me! Besides her complimenting me on my performance and my songwriting, she asked if I also acted.
“What popped into my head was that old familiar phrase, ‘Say yes ‘til you have to say no.’ ‘Yes!’ I said emphatically. ‘Great,’ she continued. ‘I’m a casting director for Bob Banner Productions. We are working on a half-hour sitcom called, Please Stand By. I think you would be perfect for the role of David Lambert.’
“Eve was convinced I was the right person for the role.”
“She hands me her card, and asks me to call her the next day to set up a meeting with the producers. The role called for an 18-year-old ‘David Cassidy-type,’ and though I was 26 at the time, my wiry frame, long, curly hair and kinetic energy made me appear much younger.
“I set up a meeting, and initially only met with Eve at her office. There, she showed me the script and literally coached me with the reading prior to meeting the producers.
“This, to my knowledge, never happens, and was so important to making the first impression count with the producers who make the final casting decision. Eve was convinced I was the right person for the role. When I finally went in and met the producing team of Bill Bickley and Mike Warren, I was well prepared, thanks to Eve’s coaching.
“Bill and Mike were young seasoned pros who had written and produced on The Partridge Family, Happy Days, Perfect Strangers, and other successful hit shows. I got the part and found out I was the first person to be cast on Please Stand By. I was so excited!”
“This was different than what David Cassidy had done on The Partridge Family.”
“The script also called for an actress to play my younger sister. My wife, Wendy Schaal, was an actress and might be right for the role. They brought her in to read, but felt she looked too close to my age to play my younger sister.
“At one point, they were looking at the actor, Bob Crane, (Hogan’s Heroes star, 1965-’71, two Emmy nominations) to play the role of my father, but when they found out Wendy was the daughter of Richard Schaal, everything changed:
“Richard, a highly respected comedic actor, gladly came in, met the producers, and after a quick reading, became the next person to be cast. Amazing! My real-life father-in-law was going to play my father! Art imitates life yet again!
“The great part of all this was that I was not only coming in as an actor on the show, I was a singer-songwriter being asked to perform my music ‘live,’ as opposed to having it be pre-recorded. This was different than what David Cassidy had done on The Partridge Family.”
[Editor’s Note: Stephen’s involvement with Front Row & Backstage began with David Cassidy…specifically in 1975, when I interviewed David for his first post-Partridge album for RCA Records (Stephen’s label for his ‘74 debut LP), and then, when I wrote about the interview in February 2022! Stephen’s name actually came up in that ‘75 interview! All is revealed by clicking here, and reading “In a Houston Penthouse with David Cassidy”!]
Stephen continues: “The music in that show was pre-recorded and then lip-synched for camera. I was given the opportunity to sing and play live. I was also asked to write and sing the theme song, ‘Please Stand By.’ I was back in my creative element running on all cylinders: Actor, singer, songwriter, performer. It was an exciting time.
“It felt like forever, but it was probably only a month before we found out (our fate from the network).”
“So much happened between getting cast, shooting the pilot, and then waiting to see if the show got picked up by the network for more episodes; this felt no different than the music business I had been working in.
“You work so hard to make a product—in this case, a half-hour situation comedy, with hopes that it gets the attention of the ‘higher ups’ who make the decision to invest in its continuation. It felt like forever, but it was probably only a month before we found out that NBC loved the show enough to order a couple dozen episodes, but with one slight change (which is executive-talk for ‘this is gonna cost somebody either a ton of money or someone their job’).
“The network heads felt the role of the mother was the weak link in the cast, and wanted the producers to cast a stronger, more comedic actress for the role. This was a shock to me! I had bonded with this ‘family’ and had a great time.
“Even though we had only done a pilot, how will this change affect the dynamics of what we had as an ensemble? Then I thought about Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles who got tossed out right before they recorded their first album and took the world by storm. That worked out!! Right?
“Still, I was nervous. The whole cast was nervous…until we found out that producers Bickley and Warren offered the role to the great Elinor Donahue. As a kid, I remember watching Father Knows Best with Robert Young and Jane Wyatt as father and mother, and Elinor Donahue as their teenage daughter, Betty (aka ‘Princess’).
“‘Betty’ has grown up, and is now about to play my mother, Carol Lambert. Life is so strange! Elinor, like Ringo, brought a calm, solid professionalism and class to our show. It was the right move.”
PSB Certainly Shows Premise: The Wacky Mix-ups of the Lambert Family
“This 30-minute syndicated sitcom from Viacom,” declared NostalgiaCentral.com recently, “starred Richard Schaal as former oil executive Frank Lambert and Elinor Donahue as his wife, Carol – a couple who moved from Los Angeles and bought the world’s smallest TV station – KRDA, Channel Four – in the (fictitious) city of De Queen, New Mexico.
“They ran the station out of their garage with the help of their family: Pop-singing son David (Stephen Schwartz), brash, know-it-all daughter Susan (Darian Mathias), and rambunctious little genius kid brother, Rocky (Bryan Scott).
“The station aired only when the equipment (including their one and only camera) was working – thanks mostly to the electronics expertise of a young Sioux Indian.”
And Now, Back to David Lambert…er, Stephen:
“As for the others in the cast, Bryan Scott played my little brother, Rocky, and Darian Mathias played my little sister, Susan. Rounding out the cast of co-stars was Marcie Barkin as Vicki Janes, a news reporter, and Danny Mora as Denny “Crash” Lopez.
“In addition, there were some really cool guest stars who had recurring roles, like Al Lewis (Grandpa from The Munsters on CBS, 1964-’66), who played my grandfather, Lewis Arquette (David and Rosanna's father), who played the mailman, Ruth Buzzi (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC from 1968-’73), who showed up in a few episodes, and The Bob Newhart Show’s Marcia Wallace (CBS, 1972-78).
“We also had musical guests perform occasionally, like the Cajun singer/fiddler, Doug Kershaw (who recorded for Warner Bros. Records the decade of the ‘70s), among others.”
“NBC ordered 26 episodes. I learned so much on set watching Richard and Elinor apply their stock and trade with brilliance and ease. I could also tell that I was adequate as an actor, but there was so much more to it than just saying lines and hitting your mark. I wanted to learn the craft and be better!
Next up: Acting class. Please stand by…