For the occasion The Bits features a Q&A with Chuck Harter, author of the new book Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series, who offers some insight on the series, its forthcoming DVD release, and his book about the show.
Chuck Harter is the author of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series (Bear Manor Media, 2017).
His other books include Superboy & Superpup: The Lost Videos (Cult Movie Press, 1993), Superman on Broadway (with Bob Holiday; Holiday Press, 2003), Johnnie Ray: 1952 The Year of the Atomic Ray (self-published), and Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon (with Michael J. Hayde; Bear Manor Media, 2012).
In addition to being an author, Harter is a musician and pop culture consultant. He wrote the documentary Hey! Hey! We’re the Monkees (Rhino/Disney Channel, 1997) and Gossip: Tabloid Tales (A&E, 2002) and has appeared as a commentator on numerous television programs including A&E Biography and Unsolved Mysteries.
Harter has produced several CDs of musical recordings and music videos under his performing name of Chuck Winston. He resides in Culver City.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): We’ve come upon the 55th anniversary of the debut of Mr. Novak. How do you think the series should be remembered?
Chuck Harter: The Mr. Novak television series should be remembered as a first class dramatic program that excelled in acting, scripting, direction and production. It was the first show to depict the high school experience in a realistic matter and had many cutting edge scripts that are still relevant today.
Coate: What was the objective with your book?
Harter: My first objective was to discover more information about this production that impressed me so much. As I uncovered the many facets of quality about the series, I found my next objective was to produce a superior book so that others could become aware of it. The third objective was the hope that my book would somehow prompt an official DVD release of the program.
Coate: Can you remember when you first saw the show?
Harter: I didn’t view the show when it first aired. Mr. Novak was broadcast opposite the popular Combat war series and my father, who was in the Air Force, wanted to watch the military program. When the Mr. Novak program was rerun for the only time in the late 1980s on Turner Network Television, I didn’t see it because I didn’t have cable TV. A little over three years ago, a friend sent me a stack of [underground] DVDs [sourced from recordings of the TNT broadcasts] of the Novak show. After viewing a few episodes, I was so impressed by the quality of the program that I decided to write Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series.
Coate: How would you describe the series to someone who has never seen it?
Harter: The Mr. Novak show was an hour-long dramatic series that featured life among the principal, teachers and students of Jefferson High School. It focused on first year teacher John Novak (James Franciscus) and his growth as an educator. The scripts portrayed the triumphs and tragedies of the students and administrators as the school years evolved. The role of the school principal, Albert Vane (Dean Jagger), was explored with the various responsibilities and guidance that the position required. It was a series that lasted for two years with an extremely high percentage of outstanding episodes. The Mr. Novak series is a genuine classic of television.
Coate: Is the series significant in any way?
Harter: As I stated before, it was the first television series to portray life in high school realistically. It won a total of forty-seven awards during its run with the majority coming from educational institutions including a prestigious Peabody Award for excellence. It was a program that revealed the commitment to integrity and quality by series creator E. Jack Neuman [A Man Called Shenandoah, Police Story]. Everyone who worked on the program brought a high level of professionalism and enthusiasm which is revealed when one can view the series. In the course of writing the book I interviewed over fifty people. Each and every one of them remarked at the superior aspects of the show fifty plus years later. The series is not dated and could easily be remade today.
Coate: Is there an ideal episode (if not the pilot) to introduce to someone who has never seen the show?
Harter: The pilot was First Year, First Day and was also the first episode broadcast in September of 1963. It establishes the character of first year teacher John Novak and also features the orientation of teachers and students for the new semester. Most any episode would also be good for a first viewing as they are usually of such high quality. They would be found both entertaining and informative.
Coate: Is it beneficial to watch the episodes in their original production/broadcast order?
Harter: In the first season, I would say that it would be preferable. The episodes were broadcast somewhat close to the order they were filmed. Over this freshman year, the character of fledgling educator John Novak is developed. He gains confidence and experience. The principal and other members of the faculty are also shown to develop and grow as personalities. The program was extremely influential on the educational community of the time. The National Education Association awarded the show and appointed a panel of five teachers to oversee the scripts for accuracy. After the first season, producer E. Jack Neuman prepared a 16mm short film documenting Novak’s growth through clips from the show. There was a demand for many prints and the film was shown at high schools, Future Teachers of America meetings and other institutions.
Coate: Which are the standout episodes?
Harter: There are many. Here are some from the first season with the theme for each.
X is the Unknown Factor — A brilliant student is caught cheating and could lose a scholarship. Should his transgression be ignored for the status of the school?
A Single Isolated Incident — An African American student is the victim of racial prejudice. The press attempts to inflame the situation and Principal Vane must take command to avoid an explosive situation.
The Risk — A former alcoholic teacher, now sober, wishes to return to a position at Jefferson High School. Should he be allowed to return?
Hello Miss Phipps — A veteran teacher, Miss Phipps, teaches sex education in her biology class and faces disapproval from the parents of her students.
The Exile — A former dropout from Jefferson High, now jobless and depressed, wishes to reenroll. However, regulations will not permit him to do so. (This episode was so well received that 16mm prints were requested for schools and prisons.)
Sparrow on the Wire — An anti-Semitic member of the debate team insults a Jewish student who argues the way to react with an embittered Jewish teacher. (A film of this episode was requested to be shown at the Los Angeles chapter of the B’nai B’rith.)
The Death of a Teacher — A popular teacher succumbs to a heart attack in the halls of Jefferson High School. The cause was due to over work. Faculty and students react to this tragedy and the full extent of a teacher’s workload is revealed.
There are many more outstanding episodes in both seasons. While the themes are certainly provocative, it was always producer E. Jack Neuman’s desire to entertain as well as inform. The messages lay beneath the storylines.
Coate: Any thoughts on the forthcoming DVD release? Why has it taken so long for the series to make its way to the home video market?
Harter: Apparently the elements for season one of Mr. Novak were buried in storage and have only recently been found. I think it is great that Warner Archive will be releasing the first season (30 episodes) in a DVD set. There has not been an announcement of a release date but it is hoped that this will occur sometime later in the year. As the Mr. Novak series never reran, except for a few brief years in the late 1980s, this excellent show became forgotten. The only way to see this classic was through underground sources if one could find them. When consumers and reviewers are able to see this excellent and enduring program in uncut clear prints, they will become aware, as I am, of the tremendous qualities of the show.
Coate: What is the legacy of Mr. Novak?
Harter: The Mr. Novak series is among the finest programs to be produced in the 1960s. It ranks with The Twilight Zone, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Defenders and others as an absolute pinnacle of television production. The series is one of the finest shows ever produced in the medium. When the DVD reissue happens, it will take its place among the greatest programs in the history of television.
Coate: Thank you, Chuck, for sharing your thoughts on Mr. Novak on the occasion of its 55th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy MGM Television, NBC-TV, Turner Network Television, Warner Home Entertainment.
- Michael Coate