Created by Irving Brecher
Starring Jackie Cooper, Patricia Breslin, Bernadette, Mary Jane Croft, Paul Maxey
More often than not, child actors’ careers are over at puberty. The transition to adult actor is difficult, even when they want to continue in the business. Jackie Cooper was a major child star in the early 30s, starting out in Our Gang* comedies and getting an Academy Award nomination for Skippy. He worked regularly until the war, but struggled afterwards** to reestablish himself. Luckily, TV came along and he started with guest roles and as part of the repertory company for Robert Montgomery Presents. But he tasted success on the small screen with The People’s Choice.
Cooper played Sock Miller, a young politician in the town of New City, California. He was dating Mandy Peoples (Patricia Breslin), daughter of the town’s mayor (Paul Maxey). The show centered on the romance – witch took an unusual turn at the end of the second season: Sock and Mandy got married. Unfortunately, fate required that they keep the marriage secret until Sock made enough money to support her in the style Mayor People’s wanted.
The big star of the show, however, was Cleo (Bernadette), a basset hound. Voiced by Mary Jane Croft, Cleo would comment on the actions with sardonic asides. This was still a relatively new concept,*** but it was more than just a cute idea. Cleo was genuinely funny and whenever the camera cut to her (often wearing some weird getup like glasses), audiences knew a zinger was coming.
The show was created by Irving Brecher. He had was a very successful Hollywood screenwriter, best known for having the sole writing credit for The Marx Brothers’ At the Circus and Go West.**** He also had an uncredited role in the screenplay of The Wizard of Oz.
The show was also interesting in that it showed progression in the characters over its run. Sock had different jobs, his marriage to Mandy was revealed, and other things changed as time went by.
The series ended after three seasons. Cooper, now firmly established as an adult TV star, went right on to another long-running TV series, Hennessey about a navy doctor. He continued in guest roles and is probably best known to modern audiences as Perry White in the first three Christopher Reeve Superman movies.
The People’s Choice is an overlooked gem of the 50s.
*The actual name of the series. It was produced by Hal Roach, who sold the series to MGM in 1938 (when it was past its prime). When he tried to sell the original shorts to TV, MGM owned the name, so he used The Little Rascals. I prefer Our Gang because it’s original and describes the group far better.
**One of his films, Kilroy Was Here, paired him with the big child star of the teens, Jackie Coogan.
***Charles M. Schultz had only created Snoopy a year or two before.
****Other writers were probably involved, and the Marx were known to ad lib a lot – and no one could write for Harpo. But Brecher is the only writer to get a sole credit for any of their films.