Running Time: 23 minutes.
Tag-line: "The game in which Hollywood's biggest stars do what millions of Americans do every day... have a good time bowling."
Notable Cast or Crew: Dick Martin (LAUGH-IN, NEWHEART) and John Ireland (SPARTACUS, RED RIVER) vs. Laurence Harvey (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE ALAMO) and Ernie Borgnine (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY). Hosted by Jed Allan (LASSIE, ICE STATION ZEBRA).
I'd like to send Ernest Borgnine week out with a bang. Er, nevermind: make that a whimper.
CELEBRITY BOWLING is a peculiar beast. Created by Joe Siegman and hosted by Jed Allan, it ran for seven years (1971-1978). Each episode featured four (washed-up) celebrity non-bowlers facing off at lanes constructed in the shadowy, spartan gloom of KTTV studios.
The visuals are quite striking.
This is the host, Jed Allan. I know you don't care.
There's all sorts of ancillary rules about who bowls first and, later, celebrities will routinely finish each other's frames according to the whims of Jed Allan. All of this is being played, not for charity, but for the benefit of one or two random audience members who will receive prizes of varying quality based on the scores. If they score a 150, an audience member gets a stereo; if over 180, they get a microwave; if more than 210, a car. But don't worry––no one is bowling more than 210. Hell, it's tough enough for these people to crack a hundred. For the lower scores they receive more realistic prizes, like a piece of luggage or a pair of pants.
Not even joking.
The production value is incredibly low-rent; it's all stark bright lights and empty black backgrounds. Large portions of the show proceed in silence and often the only noise is the constant putt-putt-putt of the improperly maintained bowling ball retrieval machine (Allan is frequently reminding the stars "Hey, watch it there––don't pinch your fingers!"). Occasionally this is interrupted by unenthusiastic applause while some television actor lobs gutter balls.
Today's episode features comedian Dick Martin and Western actor John Ireland versus Manchurian Candidate Laurence Harvey and Wild Bunchie Ernie Borgnine. I really like that they refer to him as "Ernie" Borgnine throughout. And I apologize in advance that I'll be giving the short shrift to John Ireland and Dick Martin; this is Ernest Borgnine week, after all.
John Ireland and Dick Martin are bad bowlers...
...but not as bad as Ernest Borgnine and Laurence Harvey.
I love Laurence Harvey––here, he's looking gawky (referred to by Allan as "the human pretzel") and showing off what a terrible bowler he is.
Most of the show is Laurence and Ernie slowly walking back from a terrible frame with legitimately pissed off expressions on their faces while Jed Allan mutters, "He was putting a little too much tug in there!" or "He couldn't really get behind that one, could he?" Why didn't the producers let them get in a practice round or two first? Were they really that afraid they'd have to give away a free pair of pants?
Grizzled and unkempt, Borgnine looks as though a week-long bender was interrupted by the producers of CELEBRITY BOWLING, who only gave him enough time to change out of his robe and slippies before they slapped him on your television screen.
Borgnine does this little flourish when he bowls, lifting his arm to the heavens like he's conducting a symphony.
The Gutter Ball Symphony: Lane 1, Opus 1.
Ordinarily jovial, I cannot emphasize how crabby Borgnine is. He rarely speaks, and when he does, it's muttering bitterly off-camera about––no joke––"One day you're a star, and the next, you're a bum..." or "'Golf' spelled backwards is 'flog'; how would you spell this backwards?" His finest moment is when he bowls a spare.
Not quite a strike, Ernie.
When John Ireland rolls a gutter ball, Ernie peevishly growls "Do exactly what he did!" to Dick Martin. To this, Allan says, "You're all heart, Ernie."
The frames proceed pretty badly for our buddies Laurence and Ernie, and, at their lowest moment, when they're beyond the point of no return and cannot possibly win, Allan announces: "Ladies and gentlemen, in case you forgot, the two gentlemen up at bat now are both Oscar winners. How 'bout that?" This is followed by half-hearted applause.
The best (worst?) part is that Laurence Harvey never won an Oscar, he was only nominated for ROOM AT THE TOP. Nice fact-checking, guys!
But Laurence takes it in stride.
The final score is 116 to 93.
Borgnine painfully laughs and says the scores are so low, they should probably take the audience out to dinner. The crowd claps at this, and he says, "I don't think we deserve all that applause for those awful scores." He really means it.
Ultimately, the winning audience member (representing John and Dick) receives a Spiegel catalogue gift certificate (for a conspicuously unspecified amount––it could have been $1) and a "watch." The audience member who represented Laurence and Ernie receives the consolation prize of a bowling ball and a bag to hold it in. Hopefully it was one that was lying around the set already.
Before we cut to black, Laurence and Ernie contemplate the ignominy that is CELEBRITY BOWLING.
But they were gluttons for punishment: Ernie came back to bowl twice more on the series, and Laurence once.
As bleak as it was, I enjoyed this. Three stars.