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Written By:

Alan Boon
telephemera 1987 werewolf fox

Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. They hit the schedules alongside established shows, hoping for a long run, but it’s not always to be, and for every Knight Rider there’s two Street Hawks. But here at STARBURST we celebrate their existence and mourn their departure, drilling down into the new season’s entertainment with equal opportunities square eyes… these are The Telephemera Years!


The late 1980s were dominated by sitcoms, style, and sitcoms with style, with the rump of Dallas, Dynasty, Moonlighting, and Miami Vice butting up against Who’s the Boss?, Cheers, The Cosby Show, and Family Ties. For the genre fans there was such diverse fare as MacGyver, Max Headroom, ALF, and Highway to Heaven, and the new Fox network was making waves with 21 Jump Street, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Married… with Children, and The Tracey Ullman Show, which featured a certain dysfunctional family taking their nascent steps.

The new season brought us The Wonder Years, thirtysomething, and a monster called Full House, while the weird romantic monster story of Beauty and the Beast began its four-year run, descending further and further into fantasy lore. But what first appeared on US screens in the Fall season and didn’t make the same impact? This is the story of four more shows that couldn’t find an audience…

Private Eye (NBC): 1987 would seem to be an odd time to launch a crime noir TV series but Anthony Yerkovich – who created Miami Vice before handing it off to the credit-stealing Michael Mann – disagreed, offering NBC first dibs on his new show about a private dick in 1950s Los Angeles.

Michael Woods, who made his name in soaps and miniseries, starred as Jack Cleary, an ex-cop who was ran out of the police for being too virtuous in a city on the take. After years of drowning his sorrows, Cleary sets himself up as a Private Investigator, acquiring the assistance of spunky secretary Dottie (punker Lisa Jane Persky) and a young street hustler straight out of The Wild One, played by a young Josh Brolin.

telephemera 1987 private eye

With an overarching mystery of who murdered Cleary’s brother, the show cut a stylish swathe across Friday nights, with an incredible soundtrack of period songs and original music from Chris Isaak and Joe Jackson, but was unable to trouble ABC/s 20/20 or Falcon Crest on CBS for what meagre viewers weren’t out carousing.

Just thirteen episodes aired before it was yanked from the schedules, replaced – ironically – by Miami Vice, and it has never been released on any kind of home video or streaming service. The whole series can be found on YouTube, however, and is very much worth some of your precious private time.

Werewolf (Fox): If nothing else, the newly-created Fox network was willing to take a chance on a less-than-straightforward show, and Werewolf – which premiered on Saturday nights in July 1987 before being bounced around the schedules – certainly fitted the bill.

telephemera werewolf 1987 fox

Created by the aptly-named Frank Lupo (who co-created The A-Team with Stephen J Cannell), Werewolf told the story of Eric Cord (John J York in his first starring role), a young werewolf on a quest to rid himself of his curse by killing the originator of his bloodline, Janos Skorzeny (played by Chuck Connors in his final TV role).  While hunting Skorzeny – named for the vampire from The Night Stalker – Cord is himself hunted by a bounty hunter named Joe Rogan, and later discovers that Skorzeny wasn’t the original werewolf and has to find that monster!

A two-hour pilot was followed by twenty-eight half-hour episodes, finishing its run in May 1988, but there wasn’t sufficient interest in a second season for Cord to resume his journey (although Sky One did show the whole series in the UK a year later).

The complete series was released on DVD in France in 2020 but a planned US release was cancelled because they couldn’t obtain the rights to three songs featured in the show; video sharing sites have pretty much the full run, however.Lupo moved on to Something Is Out There, a show about a victim of crime who turns out to be an alien, but that’s a story for another time…

JJ Starbuck (NBC): Another of Stephen J Cannell’s lesser-known delights, JJ Starbuck starred Dale Robertson as Jerome Jeremiah Starbuck, a self-made billionaire who is aboard an offshore oil rig when his wife and son decide to pay him a surprise visit. Their plane crashes on the way and Starbuck is left without his two most valuable assets, despite the billions he has in the bank.

Handing control of his company over to a trusted pal, Starbuck takes off in his 1961 Lincoln Convertible (which plays “The Heart of Texas” when you press the horn), traveling from small town to small town, helping out the people he finds there like a latter-day Boomer or Kwai Chang Caine.

telephemera jj starbuck 1987

Starbuck started off on his own but an injury to Robertson while at home left him unable to perform certain key tasks and he was given an assistant and driver, EL “Tenspeed” Turner from Cannell’s 1980 miss Tenspeed and Brownshoe, played by that show’s Ben Vereen.

Sixteen episodes were produced, airing initially on Tuesdays opposite Moonlighting and Jake and the Fatman, before moving to Saturdays and then back to Tuesdays for its final run. It was Robertson’s last starring role before retiring in 1994, ending a career which had begun in 1948 and seen him appear in both Dallas and Dynasty.

Probe (ABC): Out-and-out sci-fi was rare on television in the 1980s, especially that co-created by genre legend Isaac Asimov, but Probe was a bold attempt to bring a crusading science-based crime-solver to the air, with mixed results. Asimov’s co-creator was Michael I Wagner, a veteran of Hill Street Blues, who added humanity to Austin James, the series protagonist, in amongst all the hard science.

telephemera 1987 probe

Played by Parker Stevenson (Frank Hardy from The Hardy Boys), James was a genius-level intellect who used his various inventions to solve mysteries and was often called in by the local police to help solve crimes that left them puzzled. With an assistant provided by the company he founded (and then barely acknowledges), James uses his eidetic memory and lateral thinking skills to catch crooks, despite his lack of social skills.

Probe began its run as a mid-season replacement on Thursday nights, in a sitcom slot battered in the ratings by the number one and two rated shows, The Cosby Show and A Different World. It fared little better than its precedents and just six episodes were aired after the two-hour pilot, and was itself replaced by Max Headroom.

Still, Probe is fondly remembered by those who did manage to avoid the attentions of Bill Cosby, and it was well-reviewed by the critics. It has never been released on DVD but YouTube is your friend if you want to check it out. By turns a proto-Monk and X-Files, there’s a lot to recommend it.

Next on The Telephemera Years: the shows that didn’t make the air in 1987, including brides, bashers, and Norman Bates!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: 1966 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1968 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1969 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1982 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1984 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1986 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1987 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2000 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2003 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2005 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2008 (part 1, 23, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen

Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Hanna-Barbera (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Glen A Larson (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Quinn Martin (part 1, 2)

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