Larry Hagman and Donna Mills starred in this short-lived NBC sitcom, which ran for 15 episodes during the 1971-1972 season. They played a married couple who get jobs as a butler and a maid for a wealthy family despite having no idea how to be servants.
From Book to TV
In 1968, Atheneum Books published The Good Life, a novel by Douglass Wallop. It told the story of a tired, middle-class couple who decide to hire themselves out to a wealthy household as butler and maid in the hopes of finding “the good life.” Martin Levin called the novel a “bubbling social comedy” in his review for The New York Times, writing “the class struggle […] produces a shower of sparks that lights up some very funny confrontations, all the funnier because there is more than a grain of truth at the heart of them” .
Unlike his earlier novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which became the Tony Award-winning musical Damn Yankees in 1955, The Good Life wouldn’t make it to the stage. It did become a TV sitcom, however. Created by Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen, with Lee Rich and Claudio Guzman serving as executive producer and producer, The Good Life was a Lorimar/Humble production in association with Screen Gems.
The Good Life was one of several new shows listed in a version of NBC’s 1971-1972 schedule sent to advertising agencies in early March 1971 . At the time, the networks were dealing with the FCC’s new Prime Time Access Rule that forced them to relinquish a half-hour of programming during prime time when the 1971-1972 season got underway.
Thus, the networks were both scrambling to put together their fall schedules while also struggling to decide which half-hour of prime time to give up: 7:30-8PM ET or 10:30-11PM ET. Initially, NBC announced it would start its prime time programming at 7:30PM across the board. The Good Life was given the 7:30-8PM time slot on Saturdays, where it would be followed at 8PM by another new sitcom, The Partners. NBC Saturday Night at the Movies would close out the night from 8:30-10:30PM .
Copyright © TV Guide, 1971 
NBC soon changed its mind and declared prime time would run 8-11PM each night of the week except for Tuesday, which would run from 7:30-10:30PM, and Sunday, which would run from 7:30-11PM. The network unveiled its final 1971-1972 schedule on March 9th. The Good Life received the 8:30-9PM time slot on Saturday following The Partners .
An Unnecessary Sneak Preview
After officially announcing that The Good Life was part of its 1971-1972 schedule, NBC took the unusual step of previewing the series by airing the pilot episode. Typically, the life cycle of a television series worked a little differently, with a network airing a pilot to gauge critical and audience reaction and then deciding whether to pick it up. With The Good Life NBC did things out-of-order.
The network aired the pilot as part of a special NBC World Premiere Movie called “Triple Play” featuring three sitcom pilots. It aired from 9-11PM on Monday, March 22nd following a repeat of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Fittingly, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hosted “Triple Play” and their segments stretched the special to two hours.
The pilot introduces young married couple Albert and Jane Miller, played by Larry Hagman and Donna Mills. The two are sick of their middle-class life, the stress that goes along with maintaining it, and the problems of living in the city. They two believe there must be a better way to enjoy the finer things in life without having to work for them. Their plan? Find a rich family, get hired as a butler and maid, do a minimal amount of work, and bask in the opulent lifestyle of their employers.
Despite being in no way qualified as domestic servants, the Millers are soon hired by millionaire Charles Dutton (played by David Wayne), the somewhat eccentric head of Dutton Industries who lives on a lavish estate with his sister Grace (played by Kate Reid) and son Nick (played by Danny Goldman). Although he recognizes they aren’t exactly top notch help, Charles likes the two. Grace does not and wants nothing more than to see them fired. As for Nick, he soon uncovers the truth but because he also likes the Millers, rather than turn them in to his father he keeps quiet and even offers to help maintain the charade.
(Hermione Baddeley replaced Kate Reid as Grace Dutton when The Good Life became a weekly TV series.)
In addition to the half-hour The Good Life pilot, “Triple Play” also featured two other Screen Gems sitcom pilots: “Inside O.U.T.” and “Is There a Doctor in the House?” Like The Good Life, “Inside O.U.T.” was created by Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen. It starred Bill Daily as the bungling director of the Office of Unusual Tactics, an organization charged with retrieving $2 million in misprinted currency. The pilot also featured Farrah Fawcett and Alan Oppenheimer.
William Windom starred in “Is There a Doctor in the House?” as a gruff, small-town doctor whose life gets turned upside down when the doctor sent to assist him turns out to be young, fresh out of medical school, and a woman. Bernard Slade created the pilot.
Percy Shain, reviewing “Triple Play” for The Boston Globe, lamented that out of the three pilots it was The Good Life that NBC had decided to pick up, calling it “a mild comment on modern society that was definitely the least attractive item on the menu” . He further opined that “there is a valid premise here for good comedy but they took the easy way out by giving [the Millers] a family of weirdos to work for […] all sensitively portrayed but stereotypes nevertheless, and the situations never ran true” .
Why NBC would offer a preview of a series it had already committed to airing is a mystery. One has to wonder whether there was any concern the preview could backfire if critics or viewers hated it. Perhaps the series was picked up at the last minute after the preview had already been scheduled and NBC saw no reason to pull it. Given that “Triple Play” was a packaged Screen Gems special with hosts rather than three half-hour pilots simply strung together, it would have been difficult if not impossible to edit remove The Good Life pilot.
“Triple Play” was repeated on Monday, August 23rd, two weeks before the series officially debuted on Saturday, September 18th, 1971. Clarence Petersen of The Chicago Tribune reviewed the repeat broadcast and took a negative view of The Good Life, which he called “a half-hour of relentless and exhausting slapstick, nearly as manic as Hagman himself” .
The Good Life premiered on September 18th with an episode in which Albert is asked to sell a Rolls-Royce. If he sells it for more than its trade-in value he can keep the extra money. What does Albert do? He promptly allows a con artist to take the Rolls for a test drive alone. Not surprisingly, the car is not returned and Albert must desperately try to replace it before someone finds out.
Critics were split in their opinions of The Good Life, with some calling it a solid sitcom and others dismissing it as pedestrian. Percy Shain and Clarence Petersen were certainly negative in their reviews of the pilot when it aired as part of “Triple Play.” Another negative review of the pilot came in April 1971, when Herb Jacobs of consulting firm TelCom Associates told a crowd at the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention that The Good Life “misses comedy so badly they’re dubbing in a yawn track” .
Reviews of the series premiere were mixed. Percy Shain’s opinion didn’t change much from the pilot. According to him, “the situations were inept, the lines unfunny, and the whole business veered on the edge of disaster from start to finish” . Likewise, Clarence Petersen repeated his criticism of the pace of the pilot, declaring “the debut wasn’t overloaded with laughs, but I’ve never seen so many comedic crises […] packed into a single 30-minute episode” .
Another fairly negative review came from Don Page of The Los Angeles Times, who wrote “[The Good Life] is full of cutesy dialogue and gets a lot of mileage out of studio backlot sets and keeps going around in circles with predictable results” . Harry Harris of The Philadelphia Inquirer was also less than impressed, arguing the series premiere had “more promising principals than premise.”
However, there were a few positive reviews. Barbara Zuanich of The Los Angeles Herald Examiner called the premiere “fast, snappy and well-played.” The San Diego Union‘s Don Freeman considered it a “fairly amusing little comedy that might be the year’s sleeper.” And Judith Martin of The Washington Post stated it “may not be Noel Coward, but for television situation comedy it is amusing.”
In late September, with the 1971-1972 season in its third week, John J. O’Connor of The New York Times included The Good Life in a list of new programs he called “exceptionally bad” (the others were Bearcats! on CBS and Shirley’s World on ABC) .
Chasing The Good Life
For Albert and Jane Miller, working for the Duttons was exactly what they had hoped for. Charles provided them with a nice little cottage to live in, gave them free reign of his estate — pool, tennis court, etc — and allowed them the use of his fancy cars. It truly was the good life. Or it would have been if Albert wasn’t so incredibly inept.
Letting that con artist test drive the Rolls-Royce in the premiere was just the start of Albert’s misadventures. Many episodes involved Albert messing up or getting in over his head. For example, in one episode he tries to impress an old college friend by pretending the Dutton estate is his home. He offers to let the friend stay for the weekend while the Duttons are on vacation. In true sitcom fashion, the Duttons unexpectedly return early and Albert’s friend doesn’t want to leave.
In another episode, Albert breaks his leg while playing tennis and has to hire his own replacement. But he can’t hire someone who’ll do a better job than he does or else the jig will be up. Unfortunately, the man he hires is actually quite good at being a butler. Albert decides he has to compete with the man during a cocktail party or else he’ll be out of a job.
Albert also tried to hide a lion in his cottage; angered other household staff by trying to cut costs; attempted to teach Grace to drive so he and Jane can go to Hawaii with Charles; and won a fortune at a gas station for buying the company’s one billionth gallon of gas.
A pair of episodes involved relatives of the Duttons. In one, David Wayne played both Charles Dutton and his even wealthier, more eccentric uncle, the Commodore. In the other, Charles’s nephew comes for a visit and learns the truth about Albert and Jane. He then threatens to expose them.
Other plots included Nick deciding to leave home and Charles in turn putting his estate up for sale; Jane agreeing to accompany Nick to a fancy party as his date; Albert trying to convince Charles to vacation on the French Riviera (and take him and Jane along) only to wind up on vacation in a mountain cabin; Albert accidentally hiring criminals to install a burglar alarm after he and Jane learn that a number of other servants in the area were beaten and robbed.
Bob Cummings guest starred in the December 4th episode as J. Carleton Wedemeyer, a man whose name Albert used as a reference when applying for his position with the Duttons.
The Good Life’s Ratings Not So Good
In its Saturday 7:30-8PM time slot, The Good Life competed with another new sitcom on CBS, Funny Face, as well as the first half-hour of The ABC Movie of the Weekend. Its series premiere on September 18th tied for 51st with the series premiere of The Jimmy Stewart Show on NBC . The following week, The Good Life was one of eight new series to rank below the 50th in the Nielsens .
As the 1971-1972 season continued, The Good Life stayed near the bottom of the Nielsen charts. For the fourth week of the season (September 27th through October 3rd), the series was among the lowest-rated programs on television, along with Chicago Teddy Bears on CBS and Man and the City on ABC .
On October 20th, Percy Shain of The Boston Globe claimed that NBC planned to cancel both The Good Life and The Partners . The network, however, insisted the cancellation announcement was “premature” . Associated Press reported in early November that the series was having “serious ratings troubles” . David Wayne explained “we’ve finished 15 episodes in our series and we ought to know any day now if we go back for more shows or if it’s all over” .
It was all over. NBC announced its mid-season scheduling changes on November 9th. Five new shows got the ax, including The Good Life. The others were The Partners, Sarge, The Funny Side and The D.A. . Its replacement would be a new Jack Webb drama called Emergency!, which would debut on January 15th as a World Premiere Movie and on January 22nd in its regular 8-9PM time slot.
The fifteenth and final episode of The Good Life was broadcast on January 8th, 1972. The series was never syndicated nor has it been released on home video. No merchandise or collectibles were released, although Hagman and Mills did appear on the cover of the October 30th, 1971 issue of TV Guide.
In the mid-1970s, when a British comedy also called The Good Life began airing on PBS, it was given the title Good Neighbors to avoid confusion with the short-lived NBC sitcom.
Larry Hagman went on to play J.R. Ewing on Dallas from 1978 to 1991. Prior to his death in November 2012, he returned to his iconic role for the sequel series on TNT. From 1980 to 1989, Donna Mills co-starred in Knots Landing, a spin-off of Dallas. And David Wayne appeared in the original Dallas miniseries when it aired in April 1978.
A Good Theme Song
Appropriately enough, the theme song to The Good Life was “The Good Life,” an English-language version of “La Belle Vie.” The French song was written in 1962 by Sacha Distel and Jack Reardon. Tony Bennett made it famous in 1963 but for The Good Life, Tony Orlando and Dawn sang the theme.
Here are the lyrics:
Oh, the good life,
Full of fun seems to be the ideal.
Mm, the good life,
Let’s you hide all the sadness you feel.
Please remember, I still want you.
And in case you wonder why,
Well just wake up to the good life.
Oh, talkin’ ’bout the good life.
Just the good life,
For you and me.
(The good life).
For you and me.
(The good life).
For you and me.
An instrumental version of the song was used for the closing credits.
2 “Laugh-In May Get NBC Ax.” Chicago Tribune. Associated Press. 3 Mar. 1971: F10.
3 “The games TV networks play.” Broadcasting. 8 Mar. 1971: 42-44.
4 Shain, Percy. “New NBC TV season offers crime, comedy.” Boston Globe. 10 Mar. 1971: 46.
5 Shain, Percy. “Night Watch: Generation gap narrowed ‘In Search of America’.” Boston Globe. 24 Mar. 1971: 48.
7 Petersen, Clarence. “‘Triple Play’: No Runs, 1 Hit, 1 Error.” Chicago Tribune. 27 Aug. 1971: 21.
8 Petersen, Clarence. “On the Air: Sniffing Out Next Year’s Stinkers.” Chicago Tribune. 1 Apr. 1971: B29.
9 Shain, Percy. “Familiar faces return in new season’s television programs.” Boston Globe. 19 Sep. 1971: 26.
10 Petersen, Clarence. “Another Winner for Van Dyke?” Chicago Tribune. 20 Sep. 1971.
11 Unless noted, all quotes from “It’s anyone’s guess – and they’re all guessing.” Broadcasting. 27 Sep. 1971: 12-19.
12 O’Connor, John J. “TV: New Shows Escapist–And Dull.” New York Times. 28 Sep. 1971: 66.
13 Petersen, Clarence. “Ratings Put 5 New Series in Top 20.” Chicago Tribune. 28 Sep. 1971: B13.
14 “The ratings race: predictable results.” Broadcasting. 11 Oct. 1971: 36.
15 “Tighter ratings contest in the fourth week.” Broadcasting. 25 Oct. 1971: 56.
16 Shain, Percy. “6 new shows to be dumped by networks.” Boston Globe. 20 Oct. 1971: 54.
18 Lowry, Cynthia. “‘Good Life’ ratings – David Wayne in limbo.” Geneva Times [Geneva, NY]. Associated Press. 2 Nov. 1971: 16.
18 Gent, George. “N.B.C. Will Scrap 5 New TV Programs in January.” New York Times. 10 Nov. 1971: 94.
Thanks to Lee for providing a higher quality version of the theme song.
Originally August 28th, 2006
Last Updated April 26th, 2018