CBS aired just nine episodes of this “continuing love story” during the 1974-1975 season. Gary Frank and Glynnis O’Connor starred as high school students falling in love in the mid-1950s. Critics felt the show had potential but viewers never tuned in.
Young Love in the 1950s
CBS had 26 pilots in contention for the 1974-1975 television season, according to a March 1974 list published in Broadcasting, fewer than ABC or NBC. Among them were several 90-minute telefilms, including Manhunter, Dr. Max, and The Family Kovac. There was also a telefilm from Universal Productions called Senior Year. . Set in the mid-1950s, it starred Gary Frank and Glynnis O’Connor as high school students Jeff Reed and Anita Cramer.
The two attended Southwest Senior High School in an unnamed town in an unidentified state . Jeff was relatively popular, played baseball, and had dated a number of girls. He lived with his parents Lucille and Paul (played by Jay W. MacIntosh and Dana Elcar) and his younger brother Danny (played by Michael Morgan.) Anita had only recently moved to town with her parents Ruth and Walter (played by Jan Shutan and John S. Ragin).
Jeff’s best friend was Stanley “Stash” Melnyk (played by Scott Colomby), a tough guy who liked to wear a leather jacket, copied homework from anyone and everyone, and had a strained relationship with his father. Another good friend was the smart but insecure Murray “Moose” Kerner (played by Barry Livingston), who was always awkward around girls. Rounding out the group was the straight-laced Charlie Riddel (played by Lionel Johnston).
CBS aired Senior Year from 9-10:30PM ET on Friday, March 22nd, 1974. Jeff and Anita have their first date but their budding relationship is strained when Anita’s parents split up because of her mother’s affair and Jeff’s father dies suddenly of a heart attack. While Jeff tries to take on more responsibility at home, Anita struggles with her feelings.
Critics made comparisons to the film American Graffiti and the recently-introduced ABC sitcom Happy Days. In a review for The Boston Globe, Percy Shain praised the stars and little else:
Will they ever stop making spinoffs of “American Graffiti?”
Still another nostalgic look at the mid-’50’s was afforded in “Senior Year,” which started off as a typical teenage lark, but quickly turned serious as the boy lost his father by heart attack and the girl suffered the trauma of a parental breakup.
The clean-scrubbed kids, Gary Frank and Glynnis O’Connor, set up nice vibrations. But the relationships in general were unnatural and forced, the soap opera overtones seemed out of place, and the story never lifted into reality. .
Senior Year was produced by David Levinson, written by M. Charles Cohen, and directed by Richard Donner.
Senior Year Becomes Sons and Daughters
When CBS announced its 1974-1975 schedule in April 1974, the network gave Senior Year the 8-9PM ET time slot on Wednesday evenings, replacing The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour . All three networks hoped to attract viewers with family-friendly programming similiar to The Waltons or Happy Days. .
The New York Times gave Senior Year as an example of a new show aimed at what an unamed network president called “the traditional wholesome values of America” . The New Land on ABC and Little House on the Prairie on NBC were other examples. “The expected rash of Waltons-type family dramas failed to materialize,” countered Broadcasting in a review of all three network schedules for 1974-1975, with three on NBC and one each on ABC and CBS .
Producer David Levinson had approached NBC with the concept for Senior Year in 1971, pre-dating the debut of The Waltons on CBS in September 1972. When NBC passed on his idea for an eight-part miniseries, he went to Fred Silverman at CBS, who felt a two-hour telefilm was more appropriate . According to Gary Frank, NBC turned it down because “it didn’t have the audience ‘insurance’ of action, like train wrecks and chases, to carry it through” .
By July, the title of the show had changed from Senior Year to Sons and Daughters . “We didn’t want to be seniors for the rest of the series, if it catches on,” said Glynnis O’Connor, “so the name was changed” .
“I don’t want to end up like ‘Room 222’ with a bunch of 30-year-old sophomores,” David Levinson explained. “Three years from now, our kids will be different. Not like ‘Marcus Welby’ where they’re still operating on patients the same as seven years ago .
A New Kind of Television
“Sons and Daughters,” a new series blending drama and nostalgia and focusing on a pair of 1950s high-school sweethearts — Jeff Reed and Anita Crammer — will have its premiere on Wednesday, Sept 11 (8:00 – 9:00 PM, EDT) on the CBS Television Network. The series is nighttime television’s first continuing love story.
CBS Press Release, August 1974 
Sons and Daughters had the look of a soap opera, Levinson admitted. “But the only way to protect against prime-time soap opera is very good writing,” he declared. “The only difference between soap and drama is in the writing” .
Levinson preferred to think of Sons and Daughters as “heavy drama, very emotional, in the context of the relationships we have set up, a death in his family, a divorce in hers. If it’s derivative of anything,” he told The Boston Globe‘s Percy Shain, “it would be ‘Red Sky at Morning,’ not ‘American Graffiti,’ and certainly not ‘Happy Days,’ which is a piece of fluff .
Critics referred to Sons and Daughters as a primetime soap, a nighttime soap, a continuing medlodrama, or simply semi-serialized. There were jokes referring to the show as a teenage version of Peyton Place. “Like a soap opera,” Jerry Buck of the Associated Press wrote in September 1974, “the story carries over from one episode to another. What is only an incident in one show may be blown up into a full episode a few weeks later” .
Levinson, who won an Emmy Award in 1971 for producing The Bold Ones: The Senator, bristled at the suggestion his latest TV show was “a teen-age ‘Peyton Place'”:
This is the point where I may get up and walk away. I’m amazed — no, not amazed, offended — at the number of knocks this show has gotten before it even went on the air.
Where is it written you have to keep on doing the same thing? I did “The Senator.” I did “The Bold Ones.”
What I’m trying to do, what interested me, was the chance to do a drama that wasn’t life and death. We’re trying to do simple emotional drama.
People keep asking me what I’m doing on a show like this. I may fall on my butt. But I’d sure as hell rather be doing this than another cop show. 
Sons and Daughters was the most challenging TV show he had worked on, Levinson insisted. “You haven’t got a lot of normal things to fall back on that you have in other series. I don’t have any life and death situations. You can’t have someone go into a coma or have someone stalking around trying to kill one of the teen-agers” .
(Ultimately, an episode of Sons and Daughters did end up featuring a character in a coma.)
The 1950s Weren’t All Happy Days
Comparisons between Sons and Daughters and Happy Days were perhaps unfair, considering the ABC show was a comedy, but also inevitable due to the 1950s setting. “It’s the flip side of ‘Happy Days,’ Levinson insisted. “That show says it was fun being a teenager in the 1950s. I was 16 years old then and it wasn’t fun. We’re trying to reflect that” .
“The atmosphere of the ’50s is not as important as the problems of the people,” said Gary Frank. “Quite basically, the show deals with growth — maturity — versus sophistication. It isn’t to be a Time-Life parade of the 1950s. Twenty years ago the scope of a teenager’s horizon wasn’t as broad as today, so we’ll concentrate on their growth as persons” . Levinson agreed the show wasn’t just about nostalgia. “It’s there, in the background, but if anybody wants to hear the songs of the ’50s, he can go to a record store” .
Senior Year featured vintage cars and clothing and references to 1950s pop culture. Songs like “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Bill Halley, “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, and “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper. A character mentiones The $64,000 Question. Another watches See It Now. A movie theater seen in the background of several scenes is showing the film The Seven Year Itch, released in 1955.
The pilot telefilm also dealt with sex. Jeff and Anita’s first date includes a drive to Inspiration Point where everyone from school goes to make out and more. A subplot saw Moose dating Evie Martinson (played by Debralee Scott), a girl with a bad reputation.
Sons and Daughters would tackle the subject as openly as possible within the restrictive environment of network television. “I recall the ’50s as a period with a great deal of talk about sex and little practice,” Levinson explained. “Of course, the CBS censors believe kids really were brought by the stork. It was a horrible period for kids. If a girl wanted to hold onto a guy, she was afraid to hold out. But if she said, ‘Go ahead,’ he was scared and didn’t know what to do. We’ll get into sex, but we won’t go to war weekly with the CBS censors” .
Would the same viewers who laughed at Happy Days on ABC also enjoy the drama and emotion of Sons and Daughters?
Critics See Potential
According to an article in the May 27th issue of Broadcasting, advertising agency media executives considered Sons and Daughters (at that point still called Senior Year) a likely winner for CBS. Why? As Werner Michel, vice president and director of broadcast operations at ad agency SSC&B explained, the show “blends a mixture of family drama and comedy that came off quite well in the pilot. Besides, it’s steeped in the currently popular vein of nostalgia for the fifties” .
CBS rebroadcast Senior Year on Thursday, August 22nd, 1974. Sons and Daughters debuted three weeks later on Wednesday, September 11th. Reviews of the series premiere were mixed but many critics felt the show had potential.
“What takes ‘Sons and Daughters’ out of the realm of ABC’s ‘Happy Days’,” explained United Press International‘s Frank S. Swertlow, “is that this program focuses on the human element, rather than on the props of the 1950s — the songs, the cars, and the outlandish dress and dialogue.” Although he criticized moments of “schlock theater” and “some brushes of the all-wise parent of ‘Father Knows Best’,” Swertlow ultimately felt the premiere was “so good at points that [it] escapes the ’50s and could have taken place in any era” .
The Toledo Blade‘s Norman Dresser called the premiere “somewhat disappointing” with a thin plot stretched to fill an hour . Still, he thought Sons and Daughters showed some promise:
This is because, despite some very soap-operish interludes, the series boasts of two attractive and appealing young leads, Gary Frank and Glynnis O’Connor, and a competent supporting cast. Although the story gets pretty soppy and soapy at times, there are a few genuinely touching moments.
The script alternated between being preposterous and perceptive, but the tortures of teen-age love were occasionally dealt with realistically. An added plus was the honest depiction of the tensions created between the girl and her divorced parents, who still feel strong bonds between them. Chalk up “Sons and Daughter” as not quite a winner, but capable of a run in the stretch. 
Percy Shain of The Boston Globe called the premiere “gentle, heart-tugging soap opera, not the hard kind featured in the daylight hours.” He also praised Frank and O’Connor as “well suited in the key roles” .
In his review for The New York Times, John J. O’Connor compared the show to both American Graffiti and Peyton Place. The premiere featured wholesome, innocent characters facing the ugliness of the real world,” he explained. O’Connor continued:
The mix is sticky, and in this first episode, with its labored introduction of characters and setting, it becomes downright glutinous. But the cast and production are generally attractive, and the series should give younger viewers a reasonable alternative to those interminable car chases on the action-adventure series” .
The Chicago Tribune‘s Gary Deeb also felt the debut episode featured too much soap and a thin storyline but believed the show “holds great promise as a quasi-novelistic venture and has the definite potential to grow into another phenomenon like The Waltons” . Morton Moss of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner called the series premiere a “dignified, sound and sincerely felt narrative” .
There were also a few negative reviews. “Don’t watch this one after eating anything not likely to stay down,” warned Terrence O’Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle . The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Harry Harris called the premiere “callow” and lamented how “everything ends happily–for everyone but discriminating viewers” .
A Very Quick Cancellation
Airing from 8-9PM ET on Wednesday evenings, Sons and Daughters competed with NBC’s new drama Little House on the Prairie and ABC’s new sitcom That’s My Mama (plus the first 30 minutes of the ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week). Cannon followed Sons and Daughters at 9PM with another new drama, The Manhunter, rounding out the CBS Wednesday lineup at 10PM.
Broadcasting predicted Cannon would “prove a strong enough anchor for CBS on Wednesday for the two shows that will be adjacent to it” . ABC’s Wednesday lineup, the publication suggested, would likely suffer if viewers reacted to new sitcom That’s My Mama the same way critics did. As for NBC, if Little House on the Prairie failed to attract a decent audience, the network’s entire night would collapse.
NBC’s gamble on Little House on the Prairie paid off. National Nielsen ratings for the first week of the 1974-1975 season saw the new drama in ninth place (out of 59 shows), with That’s My Mama ranked 39th and Sons and Daughters 47th [34, 35]. The following week Little House on the Prairie fell to 18th (out of 61 shows) while Sons and Daughters slipped to 52nd; bucking the trend, That’s My Mama moved up to 35th .
The premiere episode of Sons and Daughters averaged a 16.2/26 Nielsen rating/share on September 11th while the second episode sank to a 14.3/25 rating/share on September 18th. Its average 25.5 audience share placed it far behind the 38.0 share for NBC’s Little House on the Prairie as well as the 31.5 share for ABC’s That’s My Mama. (For the record, The ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week averaged a 32.5 audience share from 8:30-10PM ET during the first two weeks of the season) .
By the end of September, CBS was already talking about replacing Sons and Daughters. It was one of two weak spots the network had to deal with (the other was the under-performing Planet of the Apes on Fridays). The likely replacement for Sons and Daughters? Tony Orlando and Dawn, a variety series that had debuted over the summer .
On October 7th, Broadcasting reported that CBS would most likely cancel three new shows: Sons and Daughters, Planet of the Apes, and Apple’s Way. The previous week, CBS had halted production on Sons and Daughters after the completion of the ninth episode . Five days later, The New York Times revealed Tony Orland and Dawn would replace Sons and Daughters beginning December 4th .
CBS officially cancelled Sons and Daughters on October 16th, with the ninth and final episode scheduled to air November 6th. The network planned to fill the next three weeks with a pair of specials (featuring Sandy Duncan and The Osmond Brothers) and a repeat airing of a 1973 made-for-TV movie (The Thanksgiving Treasure, starring Jason Robards) before Tony Orlando and Dawn took over the time slot on December 4th .
Commenting on the cancellation in late October, Jan Shutan revealed how the cast had tried to stay optimistic about the show’s chances by remembering how long it took Bonanza to become a hit. But the atmosphere was nevertheless pretty negative as production wound down. “CBS wanted a kids show and from what I hear the network still likes the format,” she explained. Reportedly, the network had hoped to draw both younger and older viewers but wasn’t getting the older ones, who were watching Little House on the Prairie instead .
The entire cast of Senior Year returned for Sons and Daughters. The weekly series also added one new character, Anita’s best friend Mary Anne Coburn (played by Laura Siegel). That made for a total of ten regular characters. Despite having announced she was moving to Omaha at the end of the pilot, Anita’s mother Ruth remained in town and got a job at a bookstore. Christopher Stafford Nelson guest starred in a handful of episodes as underclassman Cody, a role he had also played in Senior Year.
The series featured continuing story lines involving all of its characters, with a heavy emphasis on the relationship between Jeff and Anita. Other story lines included Anita’s feelings about her mother and the Reeds learning to live without their father. The characters regularly hung out at a drive-in called Hogies and a diner called Kelso’s.
The first episode of Sons and Daughters is set roughly two months after the events of the pilot telefilm. Jeff wants to buy an expensive necklace to give Anita for their one-month anniversary but the gift doesn’t get the reception he expected.
Other episodes: Anita gets a bad reputation after Mary Anne’s mother sees her and Jeff standing outside a motel; Lucille has trouble accepting Anita’s place in Jeff’s life so she tries to get a job to feel useful; a budding romance between Moose and Evie faces obstacles from their parents; Jeff’s former girlfriend is pregnant and Jeff tries to do the right thing; Anita meets her mother’s new lover; and Anita and Jeff consider having premarital sex
EpilogueIn an August 1974 article, Gary Frank referred to 24 story outlines, suggesting basic plots for the entire first season of Sons and Daughters had been developed . What did the writers have in store for Jeff and Anita and their families and friends? During its brief run, several characters were barely developed, particularly Danny, Mary Anne, and Charlie.
More importantly, how would the series have handled most of the main characters–all seniors in high school–graduating and moving on with their lives? In one episode, Jeff talks about his plan to attend college while Anita admits she isn’t sure what she wants to do after graduation. Presumably, by the end of the first season Jeff and Anita and their friends would’ve graduated from Southwest High. If so, perhaps the second season would begin with Jeff starting his freshman year of college at a school nearby so he could stay close to his family and Anita.
Following its cancellation, Universal Television edited the final four episodes of Sons and Daughters into a pair of telefilms: Love Is Not Forever featured “The Rejection” and “The Tryst” while Teenage Lovers consisted of “The Pregnancy” and “The Invitation.” Along with the pilot telefilm Senior Year, the three made-for-TV movies were syndicated to local stations and cable.
Exterior scenes of fictional Southwest High were filmed at John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles. Other exteriors were filmed at Universal Studios. Interior sets were constructed at the General Service Studios sound stages in Hollywood .
In November 1974 Ballantine Books published a novelization of Senior Year, written by William Johnston, under the title Sons and Daughters.
2 Although many sources indicate Senior Year and Sons and Daughters were set in Stockton, California, no mention was made of the setting in either the pilot telefilm nor the series. In fact, the series appears to have gone out of its way to avoid identifying where it took place.
3 Shain, Percy. “Pilot season at flood tide but choices at low ebb.” Boston Globe. 25 Mar. 1974: 39.
4 Shain, Percy. “NBC kills 14 shows, CBS cancels 7.” Boston Globe. 20 Apr. 1974: 19.
5 Brown, Les. “TV Programming for Fall Cuts Down on Violence.” New York Times. 20 Apr. 1974: 65.
6 Brown, Les. “Fall TV Schedule: Old Formulas, New Time Slots.” New York Times. 27 Apr. 1974: 63.
7 “Housecleaning in prime time as networks issue line-ups.” Broadcasting. 29 Apr. 1974: 16.
8 Shain, Percy. “Acting tyros series stars.” Boston Globe. 3 Nov. 1974: A5.
9 Benbow, Charles. “Television’s time machine at work again in two series.” St. Petersburg Times. 22 Aug. 1974: 3-D.
10 Shain, Percy. “Court ruling leaves TV schedules in shambles.” Boston Globe. 9 Jul. 1974: 43.
11 Benbow, Charles. “Television’s time machine at work again in two series.”
12 Shull, Richard. “This Nostalgia Show Will Change as It Goes Along.” Lakeland Ledger [Lakeland, FL]. Television sec. 15 Sep. 1974: 22.
13 [Press Release]. “Young Love Scorned in Nostalgic Drama of Growing Up in the ’50s on Premiere of New-Type Series, ‘Sons and Daughters,’ on Sept. 11.” CBS Television Network Press Information. 19 Aug. 1974.
14 Shull, Richard. “This Nostalgia Show Will Change as It Goes Along.”
15 Shain, Percy. “Acting tyros series stars.”
16 Buck, Jerry. “‘Sons and Daughters’ is Flip Side of ‘Happy Days’.” Lewiston Daily Sun [Lewiston, ME]. Associated Press. 21 Sep. 1974: 23.
20 Benbow, Charles. “Television’s time machine at work again in two series.”
21 Buck, Jerry. “‘Sons and Daughters’ is Flip Side of ‘Happy Days’.”
22 Shull, Richard. “This Nostalgia Show Will Change as It Goes Along.”
23 “Agencies lay heavy odds on CBS’s fall line-up, but see tight race for second place.”Broadcasting. 27 May 1974: 18-19.
24 Swertlow, Frank S. “Two nostalgia entries — one good, one weak.” Tonawanda News [Tonawanda, NY]. United Press International. 10 Sep. 1971: 25.
25 Dersser, Norman. “Preview of 3 New Wednesday Shows.” Toledo Blade. 11 Sep. 1974: P-6.
27 Shain, Percy. “What’s new on the screen? life in the 1870s and 1950s.” Boston Globe. 11 Sep. 1974: 41.
28 O’Connor, John J. “TV: 1870, 1950 or 1974? New Shows Up on the Times.” New York Times. 11 Sep. 1974: 90.
29 Excerpts from this review were printed in the September 16th, 1974 issue of Broadcasting (“Prime-time viewing: the critics’ choices,” Page 18).
33 “No recession at networks: sold out in new season at high rates.” Broadcasting. 16 Sep. 1974: 17.
34 “Rhoda Debut Tops National Nielsens.” Los Angeles Times. 19 Sep. 1974: H22.
35 Sharbutt, Jay. “‘Rhoda tops week’s new shows.” Herald Statesman [Yonkers, NY]. Associated Press. 19 Sep. 1974: 26.
36 Shain, Percy. “Hope show a bit tired; ratings show ABC slide.” Boston Globe. 26 Sep. 1974: 67.
37 “Trouble enough to go around as networks assess results of first two rating weeks.” Broadcasting. 30 Sep. 1974: 19; 20.
38 Ibid., 18.
39 “Nine newcomers, two holdovers head for plank at networks.” Broadcasting. 7 Oct. 1974: 16.
40 Brown, Les. “Variety Shows to Make Winter Comeback on TV.” New York Times. 12 Oct. 1974: 64.
41 Shain, Percy. “CBS cancels Sons, Daughters.” Boston Globe. 17 Oct. 1974: 52.
42 Witbeck, Charles. “Jan Shutan Gave It Whirl But…” Leader-Herald [Gloversville-Johnstown, NY]. King Features Syndicate. 30 Oct. 1974: 9.
43 Benbow, Charles. “Television’s time machine at work again in two series.”
44 “‘Sons, Daughters’ Returns to the 1950s.” Florence Times-Tri Cities Daily. 6 Sep. 1974: 24.
Originally Published October 24th, 2004
Last Updated October 20th, 2019