The cast of one of America’s favorite crime dramas and one of Covington’s major TV successes, "In the Heat of the Night," can once again be heard singing the songs of the season.
Randall Franks, who portrayed Officer Randy Goode on the locally filmed crime drama, has re-released "Christmas Time’s A Comin’," a holiday charity album recorded by "Heat" cast members in the early 1990s. As always, proceeds benefit drug abuse prevention charities.
Franks, a lifelong resident of North Georgia, produced the project with fellow cast member Alan Autry, spending 175 hours recording the uplifting album. The duo decided it was time for fans of "Heat’’ to have the opportunity to hear Christmas favorites performed by actors Carroll O’Connor, Howard Rollins, David Hart, Geoffrey Thorne, Crystal Fox, Anne-Marie Johnson, Franks and Autry. The compilation shows off the actors’ musical abilities in both solo and group numbers. There are more than 60 performers, and appearances by Hugh O’Connor and Wilbur Fitzgerald.
Franks, now recognized as an International Bluegrass Music Legend, arranged a rendition of "Bring A Torch, Jeanette Isabella" for Carroll O’Connor. Additionally, he modified "Jingle Bells" to accommodate the voices of cast members and Country Music Hall of Fame members.
While portraying his character on the show, he joined an elite group of bluegrass music stars, including Flatt & Scruggs, the Dillards and the Country Boys, who shared their music while appearing in character in a network TV series.
Other songs on the CD include "Let It Snow," performed by David Hart, who portrayed Sgt. Parker Williams. Autry performed "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" with cast members’ children as backup singers, and Fox recorded a solo on "The Christmas Song." Fox also sang occasionally on the TV series.
Highlighted throughout the project is the fiddling of Franks, a talent that has grown since he was 7 years old. Franks rose to national prominence leading a children’s act called the Peachtree Pickers, which performed live and on a "Hee-Haw- type" children’s show called "The Country Kids TV Series." He guest-starred for the Grand Ole Opry for 13 years and has shared his musical talents on fiddle and mandolin with dozens of name artists in numerous musical genres.
It was, in fact, music that opened the doors for him to become an actor. That said, Franks has produced many albums. Yet for him, this was no ordinary music project.
"This gave me an opportunity to meld the two worlds that I loved so much, music and acting," he said. "It was the first time in television history that an entire cast combined their talents in this way, sharing the stage with legendary music performers from bluegrass and country. And guess what? Everyone donated their performances for charity. There were many youths who looked up to our characters; this was another opportunity to reinforce and encourage them to live a drug-free life.’’
Although the album was recorded for serious reasons, Franks said the cast members had a great deal of fun recording it.
"I can still feel the excitement as most of our cast gathered around the microphone at Atlanta’s Master Sound to record the vocals for ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Christmas Time’s a Comin’,"’ he said.
"When you put a bunch of actors in a room with no real script, there is going to be an endless flow of jokes as you corral them to do something which is out of their norm – record an album. It was all I could do to get them to stop laughing long enough to sing."
Yet as fun as it might have been, the album strikes a very serious chord with Franks.
For a short time, years after the album was released, the tabloids were focused intensely on two of the show’s late cast members and their struggles with drugs – Howard Rollins and Hugh O’Connor. It is apparent during the interview that Franks is protective of his TV family.
"Within any family, there are people who struggle with various types of addiction," he said. "We lost one of our dear friends – Hugh — to the horror that many families face as addiction to drugs dominates a life and slowly takes that person away. That was a sad day for all of us and still is."
Franks says that throughout his career, he had seen the impact of alcohol and drugs on other performers, so he made a powerful and personal choice at a young age to live a life free from drugs and alcohol. Put simply, drugs were never a part of Franks’ life.
In fact, he has always been dedicated to swaying the minds of youngsters against the fast-paced and dangerous lifestyle drug usage presents. Franks spearheaded an effort with Hart and Autry, recording public service announcements that encouraged millions of youths to "Keep Saying No to Drugs."
"Christmas Time’s A Comin’" initially assisted drug prevention efforts throughout the country, from D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America,.
Today, through a partnership between Autry-Franks Productions and the 501-C3 Share America Foundation, the effort continues.
In 2013, the Teen Maze, which allows tenth-graders from three north Georgia counties to get a first-hand look at what the wrong choices in life can bring, benefited from the project.
In his early 20s and untouched by the world of drugs and alcohol, "Heat" provided for Franks an emergence into a blossoming career.
As the first Georgia actor to be included in the show’s police cast, and with an already-established musical audience before landing the role, Franks said that studio and network executives shared with him that his fan-mail interest was second only to Autry’s.
He bonded with his cast mates personally and professionally and was even coached by Carroll O’Connor in screenwriting and directing. He fondly remembers standing on the Covington square, leading the cast and crew, with fiddle in hand, in singing "Happy Birthday" to O’Connor.
"I was one of the youngest on the set from the perspective of most, so I benefited greatly as I learned about all the areas of our work," said Franks.
He left the show and Covington in 1993, but often returns to the area for charity endeavors. He performed on the square in 2002 and would be open to returning again, he said.
These days, he has a nationally syndicated column and continues to perform in concert in country, bluegrass and gospel music circles.
In his latest film "Lukewarm," he co-stars with John Schneider. Franks has remained business partners with Autry for the past 25 years and stays in touch with several "Heat" cast members.
Donate $20 to get a Christmas Times A Comin’ CD by visiting www.shareamericafoundation.org, or mailing it to Share America Foundation,Inc., P.O. Box 42, Tunnel Hill, Ga. 30755. The CD is available for download from Itunes or Amazon.com.
You can also Like the CD on Facebook. For more information about Randall Franks, visit www.randallfranks.com.