Oh-so-square banker Cosmo Topper is haunted by the ghosts of George and Marion Kerby and their alcoholic Saint Bernard, Neil. Only Topper (and the audience) can see the ghosts, which leads to many merry misadventures and misunderstandings.
It's common knowledge that Hollywood in the 1950s was a hotbed of wild-eyed radicals and pinko commies, with writers among the worst offenders. Although that hero of the ultra-right, Senator Joseph McCarthy, tried to clean up that dirty town, he was stymied by such liberals as newsman Edward R. Murrow. Want proof that McCarthy was absolutely right about the subversive motives of Tinseltown? Just look at the television series Topper.
Cosmo Topper and his wife of twenty-five years, Henrietta, find that their new home's previous owners, a couple named Kerby, are still occupying it. The catch is, this pair of squatters are ghosts, a flamboyant couple who had died in an avalanche but didn't have the common decency to stay dead. The Kerbys (played by the glamorous real-life marrieds Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling) and their lush of a Saint Bernard, Neil, insist on rocking the Toppers' status quo at every turn. Thanks to these radical spirits, the banker's upstanding American way of life is constantly compromised.
While a bunch of crazy people can be funny by themselves, give a bunch of kooks someone sane to bounce off of and the fun really begins. Take Judd Hirsch at the center of Taxi
, Eddie Albert as the only voice of reason in Hooterville, or Jane Curtin in 3rd Rock from the Sun
. Straight man extraordinaire George Burns
, Raymond Bailey's Mr. Drysdale...they all bear the heavy burden of sanity in a world gone cuckoo. Cosmo Topper, as played by the unflappable Leo G. Carroll handled this chaos better than most. Never losing his temper, he was instead rather resigned to his position, and always had the perfect explanation when the supernatural occurred.
Much of the credit for Topper's bon mots and stiff upper lip goes to series creator and writer George Oppenheimer. A former Broadway playwright and screenwriter, Oppenhiemer took the characters invented by novelist Thorne Smith and depicted in three MGM films and made them suitable for the small screen (the Kerbys died in a car crash in the books and movies, but he felt that an avalanche was somehow less threatening and therefore funnier), while, adding his own touches, such as Neil, the spirits-loving canine spirit.
An episode that is fondly remembered is the one in which Henrietta Topper entered a slogan-writing contest for Individual Oats with the immortal "Everyone loves Individual Oats. It's the cereal everyone votes...for." When the ghosts see that she has no chance of winning, they take matters into their own hands by destroying all the other entries. That's about as sophisticated as Topper got - but the genial writing and enthusiastic ensemble rose above the sometimes unexceptional plots.
Though it ran only two seasons on CBS, Topper's life span continued long beyond its original production in prime-time reruns on ABC and NBC. Following that came years of syndication on local stations and cable.
Like many series of the 1950s, Topper's reputation has lived on in the memories of baby boomers who haven't seen an episode since they were eight or nine years old.
As with many of these programs, the reality sometimes doesn't live up to the memories, but nostalgia and an understanding of their place in television history secure their places among the greatest sitcoms of all time.