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‘Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series’ by Chuck Harter (review)

Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series
Written by Chuck Harter
Introduction by Richard Donner
Foreword by Martin Landau
Afterword by Walter Koenig
Published by Bear Manor Media
ISBN-13: 978-1629331645
Released 10/15/17 / $40.00

One entire bookcase in my home Library is devoted to books about various television series that I have enjoyed over the years.

A few of the books are excellent, a large number not so good, and the majority of the rest little more than a pleasant souvenir of a show.

I have just finished reading another excellent one, Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter, but it’s on a show you’ve likely not seen in more than half a century, if at all.

Mr. Novak was a show I enjoyed watching as a kid, even though it was at times a pretty serious, hard-hitting, dramatic series.

I think I probably enjoyed it because I liked seeing shows about school (I was only 4 when it came on) and probably, also, because James Franciscus was one good-lookin’ fella! We wanted our TV heroes to be handsome and stalwart but, unlike most, Novak was imperfect. He had flaws, the biggest of which was, he was at times, himself, naïve, still learning, still a student.

Airing from 1963 to 1965 on NBC, imagine the classic movie, Blackboard Jungle, as a weekly series and you’ll come close. Each episode focused on day to day high school life but often highlighted real world problems that viewers were able to relate to either as students or parents…or other teachers.

A long laundry list of familiar and impressive names and faces passed through the halls of the TV high school but as with many television dramas back in those days, the top-notch writing was the real key to the series’ success. In this case, that even included some of the writers who wrote for such TV classics as The Twilight Zone or, later, Star Trek—John D.F. Black, Margaret Armen, George Clayton Johnson.

Mr. Novak’s showrunner and creator was E. Jack Neumann, in conjunction with director Boris Sagal, and this book serves to familiarize the reader handily with their backgrounds and careers. The book also, of course, introduces us to the stars including Novak himself, mannered, blond, pretty boy actor James Franciscus, arguably never as good again as he was here. Oscar winner Dean Jagger portrayed the school principal for most of the run (and was Emmy nominated twice for his efforts), replaced toward the end by the equally estimable Burgess Meredith (pre-Penguin).

Like all the best books on any subject, Harter’s Mr. Novak goes into depth—but not obsessively—on the making of the series, the bios of the actors, the plots of every episode, behind the scenes of all of them, and how it all fit in with what was going on in the real world.

Later, Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner helmed a number of episodes of Mr. Novak and provides here an appreciative Introduction to the book. Guest stars Walter Koenig and the late Martin Landau fondly recall the show in specially written pieces as well.

There would be later school series (Room 222, Lucas Tanner, The White Shadow) and later starring roles for Franciscus (Beneath the Planet of the Apes), but Mr. Novak was in its day a unique, special, and important project, while at the same time a highly entertaining series, even to a 4-year-old like me.

Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series is also a special, important, and entertaining project in that it manages to give a fully rounded portrait of a TV series not currently available for re-viewing. Hopefully that last bit will change soon. If you’re a fan of classic, well done television, read Chuck Harter’s excellent history of Mr. Novak now and you’ll be anxiously awaiting the chance to see the series if and when it DOES ever resurface!


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