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Scrooge U: Part XXXV -- How "A Carol Christmas" kick-started William Shatner's career

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Scrooge U: Part XXXV -- How "A Carol Christmas" kick-started William Shatner's career

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Are you a fan of William Shatner's Emmy Award-winning work on ABC's "Boston Legal"? If so, then you should be aware that one of the main reasons that William was cast as daffy Denny Crane was because "The Practice" creator David E. Kelley supposedly caught Shatner's performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present in "A Carol Christmas."

Copyright 2005 Goodtimes Entertainment

Strange but true, folks. This is the story that sorry-can't-reveal-my-source-on-this-one once told me about how William Shatner allegedly won the part of that Mad-Cow-Disease-stricken attorney. Late in 2003, Kelley had learned that the Hallmark Channel was putting together a new TV movie version of Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale, "A Christmas Carol." Only this time around, the role of Ebenezer Scrooge was going to be played by Tori Spelling.

This Hallmark holiday special -- to David E.'s way of thinking, anyway -- reportedly sounded like it had the makings of some spectacularly bad television. I mean, "Empty Nest" 's Dinah Manoff playing the Jacob Marley part, "Diff'rent Strokes" star Gary Coleman as the Ghost of Christmas Past, the spokesman for Priceline.com as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Aaron Spelling's baby girl as Dickens' memorable miser? The casting alone made "A Carol Christmas" sound like it was going to be the TV equivalent of a train wreck.

So Kelley supposedly tuned in when this Matthew Irmas TV movie initially aired on the Hallmark Channel back on December 7, 2003. And much to David E.'s surprise, this veteran television producer allegedly found that there was a lot to like about "A Carol Christmas."

Copyright 2005 Goodtimes Entertainment

Of course, the fact that this satiric take on "A Christmas Carol" (Which reimagines Ebenezer Scrooge as Carol Cartman, the selfish hostess of a highly successful syndicated television talk show) even works at all ... Well, writer Tom Amundsen deserves the lion's share of the credit for that. Given that he's the one who got the balance of elements just right here. Piling on the Hollywood in-jokes (So that this program would then appeal to the cynics in the crowd) while -- at the same time -- retaining just enough of the style & structure of Dickens' original holiday story that this TV movie still manages to tug at your heart strings.

As "A Carol Christmas" gets underway, Ms. Cartman's talk show is just hours away from a special live Christmas Eve broadcast. And Carol is being a b-i-t-c-h. She's running her crew ragged, sparring with Hal, (Holmes Osborne) the program's producer. This self-centered TV hostess is even abusing her loyal assistant, Roberta Timmons (Nina Siesmaszko). Sending this poor woman back to the malls on December 24th to do even more of Carol's holiday shopping. When all Roberta really wants to do is spend a quiet Christmas Eve at home with her daughter, Lily (Holliston Coleman).

But all that matters to Ms. Cartman is ... Well ... Ms. Cartman. Which is why Carol is really surprised after she leaves specific orders to not be awaken from her pre-show nap 'til 3 p.m. Only to find her slumber disturbed by her late Aunt Marla (Dinah Manoff).

Copyright 2005 Goodtimes Entertainment

Now given that her long-dead aunt is the one who taught Ms. Cartman everything she knows about how to treat people (EX: "Always keep your production staff waiting. It makes them realize how important you are"), Carol is somewhat shocked to hear Marla say "I was wrong." Because of all of the misery & ill-will that she caused during her time on Earth, Aunt Marla is now doomed to wander forever. Dragging her (admittedly stylish) gold chains behind her.

Anyway, Marla is there because there's still a chance to save poor self-centered Carol. And after warning her niece about the three holiday spirits who will soon be arriving, Aunt Marla disappears. Ms. Cartman ... Well, she's quick to dismiss what she's just experienced as a hallucination. With Carol wondering aloud what Roberta put in her tea.

With that, Ms. Cartman tries to resume her pre-show nap, only to be disturbed by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Who Carol recognizes as the star of that old 1980s sitcom, "Little Pete."

Anyway, Gary takes Carol on a quick tour of her childhood. Which was far from idyllic, given that Aunt Marla was always push-push-pushing her to become a star. Doing everything that she could to put Ms. Cartman in the spotlight. Whether it be hectoring Carol's third grade teacher until her niece was finally given the lead in the school's Christmas pageant to deliberately sabotaging Carol's budding relationship with kind-hearted John Joyce (Jason Brooks). Who -- though he only had a low-paying job working with Hollywood's homeless -- still had planned on asking Ms. Cartman to marry him. Until -- of course -- Aunt Marla broke them up.

Copyright 2005 Goodtimes Entertainment

One particularly eye-opening moment comes when Carol & Gary find themselves in the back of a limousine. Where these two observe Aunt Marla cutting a secret deal with Hal, the producer of Ms. Cartman's talk show. Which involves slowly turning "The Carol Show" from a classy, high end chat show into a "Jerry Springer" -esque freak show. Which -- while this change-on-focus will almost certainly ruin Ms. Cartman's reputation -- it will also drive the program's ratings through the roof.

As Aunt Marla gleefully signs her new executive producer contract, she burbles: "I've worked my whole life for this." Which is when Carol realizes that -- when her aunt had been pushing her all those years, taking Ms. Cartman to auditions, cold-calling agents -- it wasn't because Aunt Marla really wanted what was best for Carol and/or believed in her talent. But -- rather -- because her aunt just thought of Ms. Cartman as a meal ticket.

From there, Gary takes Carol to Aunt Marla's funeral. Which -- given how badly she treated people over the years -- is pretty sparsely attended. Then Mr. Coleman sends Ms. Cartman to her dressing room. Where Carol tries (without much success, I might add) to dismiss everything that she's just experienced as some horrible dream.

Copyright 2005 Goodtimes Entertainment

So now that we've gotten through the Ghost of Christmas Past portion of the program, it's now time to bring on William Shatner as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Now in this TV movie, the Ghost of Christmas Present assumes the form of Dr. Bill, an on-air therapist who works for the same network as Carol. Which is kind of ironic. Given that the Ghost of Christmas Present is obviously in need of some therapy. Since he constantly talks in cliches and hates to be touched.

As you might expect, Shatner has a field day with this character. He brings the Ghost of Christmas Present to life in all his twitchy glory. Literally stepping out on the television set in Ms. Cartman's dressing room to try & make her aware of how those around her are spending Christmas Eve.

For Carol's assistant, Roberta, this is not a very happy holiday. Given that her ex-husband, Frank (David Chisum) -- after years of being away -- has just come out of the woodwork. Announcing that he now plans to fight Roberta for custody of Lily.

Copyright 2005 Goodtimes Entertainment

From there, the Ghost of Christmas Present whisks Ms. Cummings out to the suburbs. Where -- after complaining about how all the grass & shrubs aggravate his allergies -- this holiday spirit then takes Carol to the cozy home of her estranged sister, Beth (Paula Trickey). Which makes Ms. Cartman realize what she actually missed out on as she & Aunt Marla were relentlessly pursuing that career in show business.

The last stop of this Christmas Eve tour is a visit to the homeless shelter where John Joyce is now prepping a holiday meal for those less fortunate. Given how longingly Carol looks at John, it's clear that Ms. Cartman still has some feelings for Mr. Joyce.

With that, the Ghost of Christmas Present (In a clever nod to Mr. Shatner's old gig as the captain of the Starship Enterprise) beams Carol out into the middle of nowhere. Mumbling something about how a car will be along for Ms. Cartman shortly before William wanders off into the dark.

Copyright 2005 Goodtimes Entertainment

Carol is just about to freak out when she notices the black stretch hummer parked right behind her. As well as the driver dressed in black carrying the sign that reads "C. Cartman."

This -- as you might expect -- is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be. Who takes Ms. Cartman on a chauffeured tour of her future. Which shows Carol first walking off of her talk show, then falling into obscurity. Eventually being forced to accept low-paying gigs like cutting the ribbon at a retirement home opening.

From there, following in Aunt Marla's footsteps, Carol winds up at her own sparsely attended funeral. As the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be slowly lowers the lid on her coffin, Ms. Cartman begs for another chance.

Copyright 2005 Goodtimes Entertainment

From there, "A Carol Christmas" follows the usual path. With Ms. Cartman making amends to all those around her. She raises Roberta's salary, reconciles with her estranged sister Beth. Carol even manages to rekindle her long-dormant romance with John.

So -- as Ms. Cartman & Co. gather on the couch to enjoy a reading of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" -- the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Be all peer in at this happy gathering. As this Hallmark holiday special draws to a close, William Shatner smiles and says "I think we scared her real good."

Getting back to David E. Kelley now ... He was reportedly so taken with Shatner's twitchy performance in "A Carol Christmas" that Kelley created a similar character to spar with James Spader in what was supposed to be the eighth & final season of "The Practice." And that character was -- of course -- Mr. Mad Cow himself, Denny Crane.

David then signed William to play Denny in February of 2004. And (if Kelley is to be believed) Denny was only supposed to appear in the last six episodes of "The Practice." In effect sending that Emmy Award-winning series out with a bang.

But audiences were so taken with Spader & Shatner's chemistry that the ratings for those last few episodes of "The Practice" surged. Which then revealed David E.'s real agenda. As in: Kelley was actually looking to create a "Practice" spin-off. Which was originally supposed to be called "Fleet Street."

Given the strong ratings that those last few episodes of "The Practice" received (As well as the wildly enthusiastic reviews that William Shatner got for his performance as Denny Crane), ABC executives agreed to allow David E. to go forward with a spin-off. But only if Kelley agreed to drop that "Fleet Street" name. Which is why "Boston Legal" wound up being called "Boston Legal."

So (just to review here) -- by agreeing to accept a supporting role in a Tori Spelling TV movie that was meant for cable -- William Shatner was given a chance to redeem himself. Where once Shatner had been kind of an industry joke (Captain Kirk / T.J. Hooker / Mr. Priceline), William is now a two time Emmy Award-winner. The star of one of ABC's top rated dramas. Shatner's hotter now than he's ever been.

All because William Shatner agreed to play the Ghost of Christmas Present back in 2003. Now if that's not an inspiring holiday-related story, I don't know what is.

Tomorrow ... Will the good times roll when JHM checks out GoodTimes Home Video's animated version of "A Christmas Carol"? Wait and see ...

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  • This is just another of those versions that uses the premise of Dickens' original story without worrying too much about anything else. There's a good deal of imagination in here and taken at face value, its very entertaining. Time to pay tributute to the work of William Shatner. In the post Star Trek work he does, he is invariably good-humoured and doesn't shirk to take on projects that could destroy the Trekkie image.All in all, this is a pleasing diversion from the original Carol and shows what you can do with a bit of creative thinking. The 'Good Times' animation you feature tomorrow had a companion audio release I believe. Read by the appropriately named 'Mr Meany'.......

  • Ok seriously, when is this article going to end?

  • Nevermind ending, lets have more ! There's several significant versions that have not been covered. I think its time the excellent Mr Hill sat in front of his TV again and watched a few more to keep him in the Christmas spirit for longer !

  • So, Jim went from never finishing a series to doing one that never ends.

    Sorry, couldn't resist the joke. :-)

  • Of course, the Shat played a very similar character to Denny Crane in "Miss Congeniality" which was released 3 years earlier in 2000. There's a really good chance David Kelley saw that film at some point, since it was one of that year's big hits and plays pretty much continuously on tv. That film also paired him with Candice Bergen - several reviewers specifically mentioned their scenes - and oddly enough she co-stars with the Shat in Boston Legal. If it sounds good to say the Shat was discovered in a tiny cable movie - ok - but the rest of the US re-discovered the Shat 3 years earlier in a big budget movie release.

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