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Written By:

Alan Boon
Evel Knievel, 1974

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 Street Hawk there’s two Manimals. 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 sitcom ruled the roost in 1974, with the top seven shows all falling under that heading, although the situation for the comedies ranged from a bigoted dad and his liberal children to urban Chicago, through a junkyard, an odd couple, and the never-ending Korean War. Those shows not looking for laughs but still finding an audience included The Waltons, Hawaii Five-O, and Kojak, with newcomers The Rockford Files, Little House on the Prairie, and Police Woman all delivering their own charms for NBC, which pretty much shared the viewing figures with CBS, ABC nowhere to be seen.

Kung Fu and the actual Odd Couple both started their final seasons for the alphabet network but they pinned their hopes on a trio of new arrivals in Baretta, Barney Miller, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, all of which made either a commercial or critical impact for ABC. CBS introduced the world to The Jeffersons and Rhoda, with Petrocelli and Chico and the Man joining NBC’s already star-studded line-up, but what about those shows that didn’t even make it to series? This is the story of 1974’s unsold pilots…

The Muppet Show (ABC): Jim Henson’s “muppets” made their TV debut as far back as May 1955, when – as a freshman at the University of Maryland – he created Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for local Washington station WRC-TV. Sam and Friends ran for six years until Henson left the station to sell his skills for commercials and variety shows. Forming Muppets Inc in New York in 1963, the puppeteer began assembling the team that would stay with him for the majority of his career, including Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, and Jerry Nelson, amongst others.

Throughout the 1960s, Henson made appearances on talk shows, particularly using the character of Rowlf, who he’d created for a dog food commercial in 1962. His work caught the eye of Joan Ganz Cooney at the Children’s Television Workshop, who commissioned Sesame Street in 1969 for National Educational Television, the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting Service. While this was a huge success for both Muppets Inc and PBS, Henson and Oz became worried that they were becoming typecast as children’s performers and sought to expand their audience once more.

Planet Earth, 1974

Created for ABC, The Muppets Valentine Show was a pilot for a proposed series for inclusion on the 1974-75 Fall schedule. Airing on January 30th 1974, the half-hour show featured a variety of muppets, with Kermit – who’d been used in commercials and as a roving reporter on Sesame Street – front and centre.

A true variety show, the pilot featured songs (Kermit sang “Froggy Went A Courtin’”), sketches, and a guest star in the shape of Mia Farrow. Ultimately – and after a second pilot, March 1975’s The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence – ABC passed but a British producer by the name of Lew Grade was interested. The rest, as they say, is Muppet history!

Where Have All the People Gone? (NBC): After finishing up on Mission: Impossible in 1973, Peter Graves starred in a number of pilots, trying to find one that could lead to regular work and perhaps a series as long running as the one that made his name. Call to Danger, Scream of the Wolf, and The Underground Man didn’t work out (although the latter became a full series, Archer, with Brian Keith in the title role), but there were high hopes for his latest pilot, a post-apocalyptic survival show.

Where Have All the People Gone? was scripted for TV by Lewis John Carlino and Samuel Stern (who would later write the screenplay for The Amityville Horror), from Carlino’s original story. As the pilot opens, Steven Anders (Graves) and his two teenage children return from a camping trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where they experienced an earthquake while deep in a cave. The first man they meet, a ranch hand, tells them that there was a bright light at the same time as the ‘quake, before falling ill and dissolving into a powder. Exploring the rest of the nearby town, the Anders family discover that everyone has turned to powder, although their clothes are untouched…

Where Have All The People Gone, 1974

Encountering other survivors on the way, they eventually make it back home to Malibu where they discover a note written by Anders’s wife – now also powder – explaining that a virus swept through civilisation after the solar flare and earthquake, but that some people have a natural resistance. Determined to survive, they set off for Northern California…

In a perfect world, Steven Anders and his family would have spent several seasons exploring this altered world, but NBC passed on the pilot, which ended up airing as a TV movie in October 1974 (and is viewable on YouTube). Instead, Graves drifted into cheap thrillers made in Europe and Australia, also turning his hand to TV disaster movies, making him perfect for Airplane, the spoof of the genre. It took him until 1988 to find another TV vehicle perfect for him, though, when Mission: Impossible was revived!

Men of the Dragon (ABC): From fifty years away, it’s impossible to believe just how popular kung-fu (the catch-all term used for all Asian martial arts at the time) was in the early 1970s. Once The Green Hornet’s sidekick, Bruce Lee became a bona fide star in his native USA, even if he did have to go to Hong Kong to get there. History can be cruel, however, and Lee was dead before his greatest film – Enter the Dragon ­– was released in August 1973.

We can’t be sure, then, whether Lee would have been happy or sad about the proliferation of kung-fu movies and TV shows (mostly starring non-Asian actors) that flooded the American market in the wake of The Big Boss – his first starring vehicle – changing the industry. He’d have probably allowed himself a wry smile, especially at the likes of Men of the Dragon, which (putting it politely) took inspiration from his oeuvre.

Men of the Dragon, 1974

Men of the Dragon starred Jared Martin, Katie Saylor, and Japanese Canadian Robert Ito as three friends who had grown up in Hong Kong. Returning to the territory for old times’ sake, Saylor is kidnapped, and the boys have to fight all manner of kung-fu gangsters to get her back. Although Martin and Ito had decent résumés behind them, this was only Saylor’s second job (the first being 1973’s Invasion of the Bee Girls), but she gives a decent performance, even joining in with the chopsocky action in the final sequence.

Creator Denne Bart Petitclerc (who’d helmed Then Came Bronson five years earlier) intended the film to act as a pilot for a continuing series and ABC aired it as part of their ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week block on March 20th 1974, but the network subsequently passed, perhaps noticing that its own Kung Fu was coming to a close weeks later.

Evel Knievel (CBS): Robert “Evel” Knievel first appeared on national television in the US on March 18th 1968, shortly after recovering from breaking his pelvis, leg, hip, wrist, and both ankles, injuries he’d suffered when trying to jump the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas the previous December. Appearing on The Joey Bishop Show, Knievel’s unbelievable catalogue of injuries were rolled out as a badge of his extreme courage (and maybe some stupidity), leading to a surprisingly long career as a stunt cyclist, which included a jump over the quarter mile-wide Snake River Canyon in southern Idaho on the rocket-propelled Skycycle-X2.

Knievel was big money and would go on to perform in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium in 1975 but as early as 1971 Hollywood had already taken notice. 1971’s Evel Knievel was a lightly fictionalised version of his life, with George Hamilton in the title role, which eventually made ten times its meagre budget, mostly through video rentals a decade later. This wasn’t the only project featuring the daredevil in production in the early 1970s, however…

Evel Knievel, 1974

Richard Adams was a veteran scriptwriter whose final credit turned out to be 2000’s The Chippendales Murder. What he should be remembered for, however, is his treatment for Evel Knievel in 1974. In Adams’s script, which was filmed as a TV movie starring Sam Elliott as the eponymous stuntman, Knievel combined his daredevil activities with crimefighting, taking down a ne’er-do-well intent on spoiling his Battle of the Sexes jump-off with female stunt rider Tracy Butler (played by former Playboy model Karen Philipp).

Unfortunately, something was lacking either in Adams’s script or Elliott’s performance, and CBS declined to even air the half-hour pilot, let alone commission a series. In 1977, shortly before he announced his retirement after yet another failed jump (this time over a tank full of sharks), Knievel starred as himself in Viva Knievel!, an action feature full of his trademark stunts that a drug-addled former protégé, Leslie Nielsen’s crime boss, and a love interest in the shape Lauren Hutton. The film did badly at the box office, probably not helped by Knievel’s conviction later than year for attacking a former promoter with a baseball bat…

Next on The Telephemera Years: It’s a bumper crop from 1974 as we unearth even more unsold pilots!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: pre-1965 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

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

The Telephemera Years: 1967 (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: 1974 (part 1, 2)

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

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

The Telephemera Years: 1978 (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: 1983 (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: 1989 (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: 1998 (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: 2006 (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: DIC (part 1, 2)

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

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Sid & Marty Krofft

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

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

Titans of Telephemera: Ruby-Spears

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