News Column

Actor with Texas roots hopes 'Fridays' DVD release is only the beginning

August 7, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 07--As an aspiring actor at Lamar High School and the University of Texas in the 1960s, Mark Blankfield's goal was to work as a member of the resident company at the Alley Theatre.

He didn't make it. He did, however, spend three years alongside future "Seinfeld" collaborators Larry David and Michael Richards and "Rugrats" voice actress Melanie Chartoff on the ABC late-night sketch comedy series "Fridays," which gets a long-overdue DVD release this week.

Launched in 1980 as ABC's answer to "Saturday Night Live," "Fridays" for years has been a cult favorite on YouTube and gray market Betamax-to-DVD copies.

A DVD release, said producer John Moffitt, was delayed because Richards' original contract gave him video approval rights and because David for years asked that the show not be made available because he was uncomfortable with the quality of his work.

Both men, however, attended a cast reunion last year, "and they had such a great time they realized the time had come to release 'Fridays,' " Moffit said.

The five-disc Shout! Factory release includes just 16 of 54 episodes but offers a chance to see sketches like "The Ronny Horror Show" (a parody of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" tied to Ronald Reagan's election) and "Diner of the Living Dead" (zombies feasting on fried face, spleen pie and gland slaw) in good quality for the first time since the show's original airing.

"It was a privilege to work live on 'Fridays,' " Blankfield said last week from his California home. "I loved doing Ken the Monster. I loved the Transphibians (men surgically altered into fish) and all the sketch comedy bits like 'The Brotherhood of Men Who Hum Between Words.' "

As the stressed-out "Drugs R Us" pharmacist who mutters "I can handle it, I can handle it" while careering across the set, Blankfield even contributed a catchphrase to the early Reagan era: "Take a pill!"

"That was my commentary on society going to push-button technology," he said. "There was an exhibit at Disneyland where they said, 'All you have to do is press a button,' and that evolved into taking a pill.

"The timing was right for the pharmacist. It was a precautionary warning."

Blankfield was born in Pasadena and grew up in Houston as a fan of Jerry Lewis' physical comedy style. After leaving Texas, he attended the Julliard School of Music and worked as an actor on both coasts, including a stint with the Low Moan Spectacular comedy troupe on the plays "Bullshot Crummond" and "El Grande de Coca Cola."

That led to "Fridays," which aired at a time when "Saturday Night Live" was in decline after the departure of the original cast.

The show enjoyed critical success through such characters as Richards' and Chartoff's "Battle Boy/Battle Girl" hyperactive siblings, Darrow Igus' "Nat E. Dred, Rasta Gourmet," John Roarke's Reagan impersonations and the Bruce Mahler/David spoof "Matzoi!" in which, as thrill-seeking rabbis, they drove a motorcycle through a wall of matzo.

The show also pushed the musical envelope with performances by such acts as the Clash, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Devo, the Cars and Dire Straits, all of whom are featured on the DVD.

Chartoff, who delivered the "Weekend Update"-style news reports, said she enjoyed the "Battle Boy" sketches with Richard "even though there was hitting and fire. There's a conflict between the boys' and girls' point of view about the reality of the world, and we were able to make it funny."

The most-remembered moment of "Fridays" came in its first season when comedian Andy Kaufman deliberately broke character during a sketch, prompting a fight that some crew members and many audience members believed was the real thing.

"We wouldn't comment on it because we wanted people to believe that it was spontaneous and out of control," Moffitt said. "We later told everybody it was planned, but nobody believed us. To this day, some people don't believe it was planned."

Moffitt said "Fridays" was a victim of network affiliates' lust for news programming and advertising revenue in the wake of the 1980 Iran hostage crisis that led to the debut of Ted Koppel's show "Nightline."

"The affiliates pressured ABC to get rid of us and run Koppel five nights a week," he said. "So they moved us to midnight, and our audience did not follow 'Nightline' and went somewhere else."

In contrast to his high-profile cast mates Richards and Davis, Blankfield did some movies and TV guest work in the years after "Fridays" until, as he prepared to become a first-time father in his 40s, he began working as a substitute teacher.

He earned a master's degree in education, specializing in special education, and is about to wrap up a 15-year teaching career as he prepares to send his son to college.

The DVD set includes a recap of the Kaufman episode and 2013 reunion conversations with writers and cast members. While some musical numbers and sketches that involve music rights are omitted, Moffitt said Lou Adler, who as producer of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" refused to allow "The Ronny Horror Show" to air in reruns or syndication, agreed to allow the sketch to be issued on the DVD.

Chartoff said Shout! Factory co-founder Richard Foos, a fan of the show, "put his money where his heart is. I hope he makes money on it, and if sales go well, maybe they can put out more episodes."

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