59. In addition to being a master of his craft in the kitchen, New Orleans’ Austin Leslie was also a larger-than-life figure in the front of the house. He had a big, friendly personality, and was instantly recognizable in his captain’s cap, mutton-chop sideburns, and crab-medallion necklace. They were featured on the covers of the cookbooks he published in 1984 and 2000.
In the 1980s, that big personality caught the attention of Tim Reid and Hugh Wilson. Wilson had been the creator and executive producer of CBS’ acclaimed comedy, WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982). On that show, Tim Reid played a DJ named Venus Flytrap. Reid’s character was well-developed for a sitcom. We learned that Flytrap’s real name was Gordon Sims, a Vietnam vet (and a deserter), and a former high school teacher. The character’s on-air persona, a mysterious, smooth-talking “love doctor,” was quite different from the character’s gentle off-air self.
Tim Reid, in his WKRP “Venus Flytrap” character, is on the far right
After WKRP ended, Reid and Wilson started working on an idea for a restaurant-based show, and decided that it should be set in New Orleans. So it was inevitable that when they went to New Orleans for research, they crossed paths with Austin Leslie. They took his Chez Helene restaurant as their model, and reproduced it almost to the letter back on set in Hollywood as Chez Louisiane, a Tremé restaurant inherited by Tim Reid’s new character, Frank Parrish, an Ivy League professor.
In that sense, Frank’s Place was designed as a classic “fish out of water” tale. They also turned Austin Leslie into a character, “Big Arthur,” the cook, of course. The real Austin was also brought to Hollywood as both a consultant and a rather unique prop artist: He prepared the food that was seen on camera.
The cast also included Reid’s real-life wife, Daphne Maxwell Reid, who played a mortician, and Reid’s love interest.
The show debuted in the fall season of 1987, and seemed to hold its own in the ratings. But CBS started messing with their schedule, and moved the show around to various time-slots. It bounced around six times over the course of 22 episodes. That undermined its ratings. Viewers were having a hard time finding it.
The show was also not a typical ‘80s sitcom. The comedy was mixed in with dramatic moments, some quite dark. The characters didn’t follow the usual stereotypes. It also didn’t use a laugh track, which was unusual for network comedies at the time (and still is).
The ratings slipped. It ended up ranking Number 55 for the season. It had still outperformed other shows that went on to become hits, such as Seinfeld. Ratings or not, Frank’s Place was a critical success. It received ten Emmy nominations, and won three, along with a number of other nominations and awards.
Nonetheless, a few days before filming was to begin on the second season, CBS suddenly cancelled the show. CBS News’ Walter Cronkite later told Reid that Laurence Tisch, who had just purchased CBS with junk bonds, was enraged by the show’s last episode, which included a storyline about junk bonds. Reid believes that Tisch was personally responsible for burying the show. The episodes were rerun in the 1990s on BET, but haven’t been seen since. When one pops up on YouTube, it usually disappears quickly. Reid is still trying to get Frank’s Place released on DVD.
The show’s opening theme was Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Hopefully, this clip from the opening of the show will work for a while.
Tim Reid, with “Big Arthur,” played by Tony Burton.
…and the real-life “Big Arthur”– Austin Leslie.
By the way, if you google images of “Austin Leslie,” be prepared: You will be inundated by images of the late Leslie Cochran, a well-known homeless figure in Austin, Texas. Cochran has absolutely nothing to do with Austin Leslie.