The Bootleg Files: Mason

BOOTLEG FILES 585: “Mason” (1975 TV pilot starring Mason Reese and Barry Nelson).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Nobody wants this thing.

God, I hope not!

During the early 1970s, American television suffered from a surplus of excessively precocious little boys – tykes including Moosie Drier, Rodney Allen Rippy, Ricky Segall and John Gilchrist (a.k.a. Mikey from the Life Cereal commercial) were ubiquitous small screen mini-stars. Most of these kids were tolerable and nearly all of them vanished from view once they reached the pre-teen years.

But perhaps the most insufferable of these early 1970s kid was Mason Reese. With thick red hair cut in an unflattering page-boy style, congested diction and the proverbial face that only a mother could love, little Mason turned up in a series of television commercials for Dunkin Donuts, Raisin Bran and, most notably, the Underwood brands of canned ham and chicken – in the latter, he repeatedly mispronounced the word “smorgasbord” as “borgasmord,” which was the constant punchline of those tiresome advertisements. Mason’s fame from these commercials was strong enough that Mike Douglas frequently invited him to appear on his daytime talk show while Howard Cosell recruited him for his ill-fated Saturday evening variety program.

In 1975, Mason’s star was strong enough to warrant the production of a TV pilot aimed at the ABC line-up. The resulting half-hour would-be sitcom “Mason” has gained a minor cult following for its sheer awfulness. Indeed, the production is so misguided that it is a shame that the network did not allow it to flower into a full-grown mess-terpiece.

“Mason” takes place in the spacious New York City apartment of the Bennett family, who just moved to their new home from an unidentified location. Howard Bennett (Barry Nelson) is newly retired while his wife Peggy (Barbara Stuart) is the typical sitcom stay-at-home mother who always seems to be in a commotion but never actually accomplishes anything. The Bennetts have a grown daughter Joyce (Lee Lawson) who lives across town with her own small child – we are not sure if Joyce is married. However, the Bennetts have a small child who came to them late in their marriage: the exasperating boy genius Mason (naturally, Mason Reese).

The opening of “Mason” starts off on the very wrong foot: Howard is freshly emerged from bed and believes his wife is still snoozing under the blanket. He speaks seductively to the blanketed figure, only to discover to his horror that little Mason is in bed. When Peggy inquiries what took place, Mason cheerfully replies, “He only touched my tush and called me honey!”

Later in the morning, Peggy and Howard express their concerns that Mason is not adapting well to his new environment. Howard, it seems, is not particularly fond of his child. “Put yourself in the shoes of an average eight-year-old kid in this neighborhood,” he states. “Would you want to be friends with Mason?” When Peggy suggests that Mason visit his older sister, Joyce brings Mason home and informs Peggy that she doesn’t want him playing with her little daughter because of his weird influence on her. “She asked me for a chicken head so she can put a curse on her doll,” Joyce complains.

Mason, who is unable to find friends at his school, manages to find a playmate from Central Park and he brings him home. However, his new friend Linc is a middle-aged man. Peggy is aghast, confiding in her husband, “For all we know, he’s a pervert.” Howard replies, “Oh, I don’t think Mason leans that way.”

Mason packs his suitcase and runs away to Linc’s apartment. But Linc is occupied with a buxom blonde (Lee Meredith) and is not interested in Mason’s company. Mason eventually goes home and complains, “Two policemen and an old lady insisted on taking me home – the old lady stole my suitcase.” Linc shows up, but Mason does not want to talk with him and runs to his room. Howard goes to the room and has a father-and-son talk, adding sincerely, “You keep us young, Mason. You thaw out our lives.” Mason spots Linc from his window and calls out, and leaves to reunite with his new (and much older) friend.

“Mason” is such a crass misfire at every level – from the bizarre pedophile humor to the strained delivery of the horribly written dialogue to the shrill laugh-track punctuation to every other line to the emetic cutesiness of Mason’s mugging and self-satisfied performance – that the half-hour viewing feels like half of a lifetime. And there is no reason why this thing failed so badly. Director Jack Shea and writers Austin and Irma Kalish were sitcom veterans with plenty of beloved works to their respective credits, and the adult cast consisted of show biz reliables with distinguished track records. Throughout the show, there is a strained feeling that the cast – especially poor Barry Nelson – are trying to achieve some sort of alchemist moment and elevated this leaden work into comedy gold.

Even ABC, which was never celebrated for its perspicacity in quality programming, not only refused to include “Mason” in its programming, but it also parked the pilot on a shelf for two years before fulfilling its contractual obligation by airing it without special promotion on July 4, 1977. The show would have probably disappeared into oblivion if not for the now-adult Mason Reese, who uploaded a slightly fuzzy VHS video dupe onto his YouTube page. (The pilot’s copyright was held by the now-defunct Filmways, and it is unclear who currently owns the property.)

Mason Reese’s career petered out by the end of the 1970s, only to percolate anew when he joined the sorry world of one-time child stars who make a semi-career based on the memories of their evaporated fame. The failure of “Mason” offers sad evidence that this 1970s’ figure overstayed his allotted 15 minutes of fame.

P.S. A special shout out is in order to Anthony “Kingfish” Vitamia for calling this monstrosity to my attention. If you have any favorite oddities that you believe are deserving of The Bootleg Files, please let me know!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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