George Dzundza became the unlikely star of a cult favorite Eighties sitcom
Open All Night was too edgy to be embraced as “the first real comedy show of the '80s.”
In the 1970s, George Dzundza became one of the most likable character actors in Hollywood after stealing scenes in award-winning movies like The Deer Hunter and hit TV shows like The Waltons.
The "pudgy, baby-faced" actor became so popular that ABC cast Dzundza to star in Open All Night, a sitcom that co-creator Tom Patchett told United Press International in 1981 would soon become regarded as "the first real comedy show of the ‘80s."
"Our jokes are more intelligent and outrageous than some of the highly rated sitcoms on the air right now," Patchett said, proclaiming: "We’re geared to the more hip audiences."
But Open All Night, about George Feester, the dopey manager of a 24-hour convenience store in Los Angeles, was not exactly well-received.
"The network ought to shut it down before it gets any worse," wrote one critic in The Courier Journal in 1981 after it premiered.
Co-created by Patchett and Jay Tarses (who also played a cop who would stop by the store to mess with George), Open All Night drew heavy hitters for writers, coming from shows like The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show and M*A*S*H.
Although viewers didn’t quite enjoy Open All Night as much as those other hit shows, it did garner at least one accolade for its writing.
One episode that parodied Psycho and was penned by M*A*S*H writing duo Ken Levine and David Isaacs was nominated for a WGA award in 1982.
For the show, Dzundza’s likeability was key to making his dim-witted character endearing to audiences, and some of the show’s few fans remember the opening credits for Open All Night very fondly, as it told the story of George Feester in a sing-song, rhymey way.
"One of the best theme songs in TV history," wrote Ben, a commenter on Ken Levine’s popular blog.
Levine had written a post about his WGA-nominated episode after telling fans of his blog how he was "amazed and delighted that some of you actually remember Open All Night."
"The premise-stating theme song was one of the best ever," another commenter Rinaldo wrote. "George Dzundza was wonderful, the milieu and atmosphere were unique, the characters were endearing. The Sam Whipple character was the first representation I can recall on TV of a certain kind of airhead aimless teenager of that era."
For Patchett and Tarses, the offbeat show represented a new frontier of Eighties comedy, and when ABC requested that they tone the show down, they refused and won the battle.
But they lost the war when despite the great theme song and Dzundza’s quirky appeal, Open All Night faded into Eighties obscurity, cancelled after 13 episodes.
For Dzundza, starring in Open All Night was yet another unexpected turn in his life, and he didn’t harbor bad feelings when the show ended.
"Part of the life of an actor is not knowing what comes next," Dzundza summed up his acting ethos in The Commercial Appeal in 1979. "Except for a fortunate few who have projects booked far in advance. I’m not one of those yet, and I may never be. But that’s all right. I’m doing what I want to do."
As a kid, Dzundza didn’t want to be an actor. Growing up in Germany, it never occurred to him.
But then his parents moved him to New York, and when he started college in Brooklyn, he said, "I was literally blackmailed into the theater."
"During freshman orientation, my adviser was a young lady named Leah Ann Roazza, who was head of the drama society," Dzundza said. "She told me that if I didn’t come out for a play, she’d talk to my professors and get them to flunk me out of school. So I went out, got the part and got hooked."
He preferred doing movies to television, and though he continued acting through 2011, Open All Night was his one shot at TV stardom, and it came about in part thanks to that pushy adviser.
"I spotted her a few years ago in a bar," Dzundza said. "I went up to her and started screaming, ‘It’s your fault, you’re responsible for my life.’ She must have thought I was some nut."