1972 was a noteworthy year for many things that are still part of our lives 50 years later. Numerous puzzle pieces came together to form an interesting kaleidoscope of cultural events. Unlike today, most of them didn’t revolve around politics, half-truths, and bizarre conspiracy theories. If you were around during that time, some of these things may bring a wistful smile of remembrance. If you weren’t there to witness it, read on to see what you missed.
Hollywood was on a roll, and contributed some landmark movies. We were treated to “The Godfather,” which is still regarded as one of the finest American films ever made. “The Poseidon Adventure” defined the all-star disaster movie, complete with soap opera elements and a top-ten pop song, in this case “The Morning After.” Martial arts master Bruce Lee may have been passed over for the lead in TV’s “Kung Fu,” but he made up for it on the big screen with “Fist of Fury” and “The Way of the Dragon.” “Last Tango in Paris” was a critical and commercial hit, but its controversial content nearly tanked Marlon Brando’s career, right before he refused the best actor Oscar for “The Godfather.” “Deliverance” was a career-maker for Burt Reynolds, and came on the heels of his infamous nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine. And no, he didn’t play the character who was told to “Squeal like a pig!” That dubious distinction went to actor Ned Beatty, who got teased about it for the rest of his life.
It’s interesting to look at the top ten films and realize how we were spending our entertainment bucks. Besides “Godfather,” “Poseidon” and “Deliverance,” the other seven top grossers were “What’s Up, Doc?”, “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Cabaret,” “Deep Throat” (seriously!), “The Getaway,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).” In case you couldn’t tell, that last one was courtesy of Woody Allen, inspired by Dr. David Rubin’s bestseller. “Deep Throat” also had the distinction of ushering in what was labeled “porno chic,” basically moving adult films from seedy bookstores to theaters on Main Street.
The pop music world provided songs that are still fodder for oldies stations, class reunions, and the occasional beer commercial. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (Roberta Flack) was initially released in 1969 but didn’t find an audience until Clint Eastwood used it in his movie “Play Misty for Me.” It took home Grammy awards for both Song and Record of the Year. “American Pie” (Don McLean) is as much a pop quiz as a pop song, a musical riddle with veiled mentions of Elvis, Bob Dylan and other music icons. The song’s refrain—“The day the music died”—is a reference to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper.
This year also gave us Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash, “Love Train” by the O’Jays, and Bette Midler’s breakout hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” The inspirational “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers topped the charts, along with Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” “Without You” (Harry Nilsson), and “Nights in White Satin” (The Moody Blues). For better or worse, ’72 introduced the pop group ABBA. Their name is an acronym for members Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid. Did you know it was also the name of a Swedish canned fish company?
Television continued to search for new ways to attract viewers. “Sanford and Son” debuted, where veteran nightclub comic Redd Foxx played a Black version of Archie Bunker. Speaking of which, the “All in the Family” spinoff “Maude” starred Broadway actress Beatrice Arthur as an outspoken feminist. The show used dark humor to take on taboo sit-com topics like alcoholism, domestic violence, infidelity and unplanned pregnancy. “The Bob Newhart Show” gave the popular stand-up comedian a new audience, while “The Waltons” provided a down-home family contrast to the turmoil in the world. Cable network Home Box Office began broadcasting that year. For the first nine years it was available, HBO provided only about nine hours of programming a day, until Showtime came along and offered a 24-hour schedule.
In September of that year, audience members were invited to “Come on down!” for the first time with the reboot of “The Price is Right,” still the longest-running TV game show in history. “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” permanently relocated from NYC to LA (actually Burbank), where it would remain until 2014. In keeping with the adage “crime doesn’t pay,” more than half of the weekly network primetime schedule consisted of private eye and police dramas. The venerable children’s program “Captain Kangaroo” aired its 5000th episode, and the Korean war comedy “M*A*S*H” debuted. As all good things must come to an end, the beloved sit-com “Bewitched” lost its magic after eight seasons, when it was scheduled against “All in the Family,” then the most-watched show on TV.
Do you have a drip coffee maker or Keurig in your kitchen? You can trace its origins back to 1972, when a new home appliance called Mr. Coffee hit the market. They hired baseball legend Joe DiMaggio to be the on-air pitchman, despite his preference for instant Sanka. Have you ever served Egg Beaters for breakfast? The 99-percent egg white product that was intended to reduce cholesterol first became available that year. Also introduced was the Honda Civic, a sub-compact auto which turned a company best known for motorcycles into a car brand. Sales of the fuel-efficient import soared as the price of gasoline hit then-record highs. To put that in perspective, it was $.36 a gallon in 1972. Those were the days…
Pong, the first arcade video game from Atari, let players imagine what it was like to play table tennis without actually holding a paddle. On the real tennis court, yellow tennis balls were introduced. Research showed that the bright yellow color was more visible on TV than the traditional white variety. This was also the year we first heard George Carlin’s comedy routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” I can’t say them here, either!
How many of these do you remember: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” (from an Alka-Seltzer commercial); “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” the United Negro College Fund slogan famously mangled later by Vice President Dan Quayle as “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind”; Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem’s New York magazine spinoff, which she originally considered naming Sisters or Bimbo; Carnival Cruise Line, which started off with one ship and enough fuel to make it from Miami to San Juan, but not back; the unanimous passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; and the popular children’s book “Watership Down,” conceived by Richard Adams for his two daughters while on a long family car trip.
Speaking of literature, you can tell a lot about society by what people read. The top selling book that year, according to Publisher’s Weekly, was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach. Other bestsellers included “The Odessa File” and “The Day of the Jackal” (both by Frederick Forsyth), “The Winds of War” (Herman Wouk), “The Word” (Irving Wallace), “My Name is Asher Lev” (Chaim Potok), “Wheels” (Arthur Hailey), and “Semi-Tough” (Dan Jenkins).
Of note is that a second-rate self-help book with crude illustrations and the titillating title “The Joy of Sex” spent 11 weeks atop the NYT bestsellers list. Other popular books that year included “The Terminal Man,” “Elephants Can Remember,” “The Scarlet Ruse,” “All Creatures Great and Small,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “The Stepford Wives,” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
I wonder what people will remember about us in 50 years?