Sinatra on the Tube

Sinatra: A Man and His Music.

Sinatra: A Man and His Music.

Frank Sinatra is renowned for his contributions to music and film, but his television output usually evokes a shrug. Yet Frank worked extensively on the tube, starring in concerts, movies, talk shows and even his own television series.

Sinatra’s first big-name TV appearance was in a 1955 version of Our Town, starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint as the young lovers. Sinatra plays the stage manager, who may seem an incongruously urbane narrator for small-town New Hampshire, but his presence adds weight to the sentimental story. Of course, his rendition of songs such as “Love and Marriage” is peerless and strong performances from Newman and Saint make this a piece of kinescope worth watching today.

While Sinatra hosted the Bulova Watch Time variety show from 1950-52, The Frank Sinatra Show was his official series, the one that granted him creative control—for better or worse. It ran on ABC for one season (1957-58) and featured top-flight guests such as Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Shore and Ethel Merman. Unfortunately, Frank’s notorious loathing of rehearsals hampered the effort. Highly rated counter-programming, including a show hosted by right-wing Bishop Fulton Sheen, further doomed the program. Given a choice between listening to Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee duet Gershwin tunes or listening to a 60-year-old virgin rant against“Commies,” America chose the latter.

Sinatra returned to television  in 1959-60 with a series of specials sponsored by Timex. “Here’s to the Ladies,” featured a series of legendary women such as Lena Horne and Eleanor Roosevelt—but the most memorable show starred a fresh-out-of-the-Army Elvis Presley, with the King taking on “Witchcraft,” as the Chairman crooned “Love Me Tender.”

The “special” format lent itself better to Sinatra’s sprawling talent and low tolerance for boredom. Perhaps his greatest television outing was his 1965 special, Sinatra: A Man and His Music. A celebration of his 50th birthday and storied career, it was a selection of his finest tunes, rendered at what may have been the peak of his power.

He came back the next year with A Man and His Music Part II and again in 1967 with Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim, which featured Ella Fitzgerald and guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sinatra and Jobim continue their lyrical bossa nova collaborations, while Frank and Ella knock out a “The Lady Is a Tramp” for the ages.

The 1970s saw Sinatra appearing more on the small screen, but not as a vocalist. In 1977, he guest-hosted The Tonight Show, which was basically an excuse for him to sit back and let Don Rickles do the heavy lifting. That same year, he starred in his last dramatic role, in the cop vs. the mob thriller Contract on Cherry Street—a standard, gritty 1970s action flick, although watching the 60-plus-year-old Sinatra smack around thugs half his age and twice his size is, well …

In 1978 he was the guest of honor on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, that staple of vintage television and contemporary infomercial, where soused semi-celebs make feeble jabs at each other. Sinatra’s visit brought out the actual A-list, including a heavily rouged Ronald Reagan and a so-drunk-I-can’t-see Orson Welles. LaWanda Page inspires some solid laughs, even if one wishes they were several shades bluer.

In 1992, several years before his demise, Frank put his official stamp of approval on Sinatra, a miniseries that offered up an (expectedly) whitewashed version of his life. A better way to wallow in several hours of Ol’ Blue Eyes, HBO released a four-part documentary earlier this year. All or Nothing at All is packed with rare clips, interviews and plenty of Sinatra doing what he does better than anyone else: Singing.