A Brief Oral History of ‘Head of the Class’ in Moscow

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In September of 1988, the cast and crew of ABC’s Head of the Class became the first Americans to shoot a television series inside the Soviet Union. The sitcom starred Howard Hesseman as the teacher of a New York City high school honours class. The premise of the two-episode ‘Mission to Moscow’ was an academic competition, with scenes filmed at Moscow High School No. 20. The episodes were originally broadcast without a laugh-track. 

Headshots, Head of the ClassRich Eustis, executive producer: “It is all the normal American TV sitcom, though the locale has moved to Moscow. On another level, however, we are saying some things and saying them quite consciously, about the Soviet Union and about Russians by portraying them as they are, as we found them and as we think Americans should get to know them… If we can diffuse the concept of Soviet people as enemies, we may have done some good.”

Michael Elias, executive producer: “A lot of stereotypes died in that classroom. The Russian kids turned out to be kids, just as Russians in general have turned out to be people, just people pretty much like us. And that is something we want to show.”

Rich Eustis: “Americans don’t realize, for the most part, that people here live quite normally. Even in our group, which was prepared for this trip, people were amazed by the normality of life.  Somehow they didn’t expect to find gas stations and dry cleaners and grocery stores, and that is a measure of how stereotyped our image is of Moscow.”

Ninety-five cast, crew, and family members travelled to Russia. They stayed at the Rossiya Hotel, a Stalinist-era building demolished in 2007. Capable of accommodating 4,000 guests, the hotel had a police station with jail cells behind the barber shop. 

Rossiya HotelDan Schneider, cast member: “We stayed in a huge hotel, 1,000 rooms, and in the main lobby there was one old man with a dial phone for all of them. My room was a quarter-mile from the elevator. They have these large, cylindrically shaped women every hundred yards or so in the halls who check your identification. [People in Moscow] don’t really want to have anything to do with you. They wave and look in the other direction. Young people were a little friendlier. They didn’t know who we were. They didn’t even know Mike Tyson.”

The heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Mike Tyson had travelled to Russia with his wife, cast member Robin Givens. The couple visited Lenin’s tomb and ate ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins shop which had just opened in their hotel. They were surrounded by American journalists, tourists, and Soviet citizens in Red Square.

Mike Tyson: “If anybody ever told me I’d be in Russia and someone would ask me for an autograph, I’d think it was crazy. When I first got here, I was scared. You hear so much bad stuff. This place looks like New York City in the 1940s in a black-and-white movie. You see people on the lines. It looks like the Depression with people waiting for soup. It’s a great experience, but I don’t want to give America up. I like the people, but they don’t smile very much.”

In Givens’ divorce petition, she described a violent argument which culminated with her husband hanging from a balcony seven stories above the atrium. Tyson flew home on an earlier flight. “He was exemplary at all times,” said Michael Elias. “I never heard him raise his voice to anyone.”

In Red Square, Givens and co-stars Khrystyne Haje and Howard Hessman posed beside an American fan, who would later post the pictures on the Various Celebrities I Know Or Have Met page of his website. Head of the Class‘ ‘Mission to Moscow’ episodes were well-received, but the fourth season would be Hesseman’s last.

Howard Hesseman cast member: “It’s not necessarily true that there’s no socially redeeming value to Head of the Class. It’s true in my opinion, but not necessarily true. We’re not doing the show that I was led to believe I’d do, and it’s difficult for me to get off that. I don’t want to air dirty laundry in public, but I do feel that the educational arena is one that offers a variety of story ideas as a means of investigating our lives-what we mean to one another and what’s important.”

Sources:

‘Head of the class’ finds Moscow and loses stereotypes, Michael Parks, Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1988.  ABC’s ‘Head of the Class’ goes on field trip to Moscow, The Washington Post, October 29, 1988.  Tyson Scores With A Crowd In Red Square, Steve Goldstein, Inquirer Staff Reporter, September 12, 1988. The Glows Are Off, Pat Putnam, Sports Illustrated, October 24, 1988. ‘Head of the Class’ Goes to Moscow, John J. O’Connor, The New York Times, November 2, 1988. ‘Hesseman Gives ‘Head Of The Class’ A Low Grade, Luaine Lee, Scripps-Howard News Service, August 16, 1989.

Photo: Rossiya Hotel, Panther, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5

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