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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: 1978 – PART 1

Written By:

Alan Boon
Mrs Colombo, 1979

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!

1978-79

The 1978-79 season was a time for goodbyes, with the final episodes of All in the Family, The Amazing Spider-Man, Good Times, Starsky & Hutch, Welcome Back Kotter, and Wonder Woman all making grown men cry. Still, ABC’s massive comedy line-up – they filled the top five slots in the ratings chart with their hit sitcoms – must have been some succour, with Mork & Mindy the number three show in its debut season.

Other new shows included Three’s Company spin-off The Ropers, a put-upon Judd Hirsch in Taxi, lessons in harmony with Diff’rent Strokes, and radio station fun with WKRP in Cincinnati. Fans of telefantasy were treated to The Dukes of Hazzard, BJ and the Bear, and space opera in Battlestar Galactica, alongside their regular doses of Charlie’s Angels and CHiPs. But those were the shows that people remember from 1978 – what about those that only enjoyed brief lives? This is the story of four shows lost before they ever got chance to find their true selves…

Salvage 1 (ABC): Although he’d later raise senior citizens’ heart rates as down to earth lawyer Matlock in the legal drama of the same name, Andy Griffith shot to fame after starring in the Elia Kazan film A Face in the Crowd, afterwards becoming one of TV’s most beloved characters as small town sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show. Despite The Andy Griffith Show never placing lower than seventh in the Nielsen ratings, Griffith found life after Mayberry tough; despite ending the show to move into feature films, he instead delivered a parade of lacklustre TV movies and short run series, all the while looking for that next special role.

We’ll never know if Griffith thought Harry Broderick, the protagonist of the 1979 series Salvage-1, could achieve the same status as Taylor but he attacked the role with his trademark charm regardless. The owner of Jettison Scrap & Salvage Co., Broderick has a dream – he wants to be the first to salvage the detritus left on the Moon by the Apollo missions and constructs a special craft, The Vulture, to achieve that aim. Joining him are former astronaut Skip Carmichael (Broadway actor Joel Higgins) and glamorous NASA fuel scientist Mel Slozar, played by Trish Stewart, best known for The Young and the Restless. FBI agent Jack Klinger (The Dirty Dozen’s Richard Jaeckel) keeps an eye on the team, eventually developing a grudging respect for Broderick.

Salvage-1, 1978

The Moon mission was the subject of the pilot episode, shown to good ratings on January 20th 1979 and immediately followed by a regular slot on Monday nights. In the course of that twelve-episode season, the team encountered a giant ape, a Japanese soldier still fighting World War Two, shapeshifting aliens, and a seemingly friendly robot with secret orders to kill! This was heady stuff, a far cry from the cases that Griffith solved as Taylor, and the show placed forty-eighth in the year-end rankings, earning a tentative second season for the Fall 1979 season.

It soon became clear that the network had lost faith in the show, delaying its return until early November and then yanking it from the schedules after just two episodes had aired (admittedly to lacklustre viewing figures). Six episodes had been filmed by that point but the other four – with much more mundane storylines than the fantastic first season (which had noted sci-fi author Isaac Asimov as scientific advisor) – went unaired, although they were shown in some ITV regions in the UK in 1981. It took Griffith another seven years to find the next role that truly fitted him and he spent a decade playing the mature legal eagle, an act of career salvage that Harry Broderick would be proud of.

Highcliffe Manor (NBC): A mid-season replacement for Bernie Casey vehicle Harris and Company (the lowest rating show of the season, lasting just four episodes and itself a mid-season replacement for the cancelled Project UFO), the titular Highcliffe Manor was an old mansion on an otherwise deserted island off the coast of Massachusetts. So far, so Gothic, but the creepiness of Highcliffe was played for laughs in a sitcom created by TV veteran Robert Blees (who also wrote amphibian terror movie Frogs, starring Ray Milland).

Highcliffe Manor was filled with all manner of misfits, from mad scientist Frances and bionic man Bram Shelley to womanising preacher Reverend Glenville, all overseen by Helen Blacke, the widow of the owner of the sinister Blacke Foundation. The Donna Reed Show’s Shelley Fabares starred as Helen, with capable backing from James McHattie and future Olympic volleyball gold medalist Christian Marlowe.

Highcliffe Manor, 1979

The show was unusual for a sitcom of the time, with a developing story arc that saw Helen Blacke uncover the secrets of the Manor and its occupants, half of which want to do away with her for their own sinister ends. A young Ernie Hudson as Mr Blacke’s former assistant Smythe seems to have his own agenda, but the scripts – mostly by former Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman head writers Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner – aimed for somewhere between intriguing and funny, landing nowhere near either.

Only six episodes were ordered and it was hoped that good ratings in its Thursday night slot – unfortunately up against hit ABC comedy Angie – might secure a full second season order. The fact that you’ve never heard of this show – and that it’s a part of this series – tells its own story, however, and no second season was forthcoming. Buckner and Ross-Leming would go on to executive produce both Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Supernatural, two shows with a much more successful mix of drama and comedy, sadly resisting the temptation to tie up Highcliffe Manor’s loose plot lines in either show.

Delta House (ABC): The first movie to carry the National Lampoon presents… designation, and based on stories published in the magazine about the college experiences of its writers, Animal House was a surprise hit in 1978, bringing the gross-out humour of Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi to a wider audience and exposing the shenanigans found in college fraternity houses across the United States.

Belushi’s John “Bluto” Blutarsky had joined the army by the time the ABC spin-off Delta House hit the air in January 1979, but his brother Jim – aka “Blotto” – was there, played by Josh Mostel after Jim Belushi turned down the role. John Vernon reprised his role as crusty old Dean Wormer and Stephen Furst, Bruce McGill, and James Weddoes also returned from the movie, their characters promoted to principal protagonists with several new actors cast as the other members of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity.

Delta House, 1979

Delta House premiered on January 18th 1979 and was given a Saturday night slot as a mid-season replacement for small town police comedy Carter Country. Thirteen episodes were ordered, airing weekly through April, and it was hoped that this would whet the appetite for a full slate the following season. Of course, adhering to television network stands and practices meant the TV show couldn’t quite capture the anarchy of the original, although the writing team – including National Lampoon’s John Hughes and Ted Mann, both of whom would go on to bigger things in Hollywood – gave it the old college try.

Hijinks involving the Cuban missile crisis, switching houses with the uptight Omegas, and the distracting presence of The Bombshell (a young Michelle Pfeiffer in only her second role) all provide reasonable distraction but there’s something intangible missing. Viewers felt the same and Delta House came in at seventy-eighth for the year – level with the departing Welcome Back, Kotter and even lagging behind the ludicrous Supertrain – and, with Belushi’s death in 1982 stymying any future sequels, that was the last the world heard from Delta Tau Chi.

Mrs Columbo (NBC): Throughout the initial ten-year run of Columbo movies, the eponymous detective’s wife was often referred to but never seen, the subject of a humorous quip or a useful tool in the solving of a crime. Episodes of Columbo aired as part of The NBC Mystery Movie slot and when that was cancelled in 1977, creators Richard Levinson and William Link felt the time was right to say goodbye to the dishevelled detective, agreeing to make five final episodes that aired as special presentations.

NBC executive Fred Silverman, however, wanted a few “one more things” and, against the wishes of Levinson and Link, greenlit a spin-off series featuring Mrs Columbo, who – to explain Peter Falk’s absence – was in the process of a divorce. Casting Kate Mulgrew as Kate Columbo, Silverman tasked final season producer Richard Alan Simmons with coming up with a premise that could lengthen the life of the Columbo franchise.

Mrs Colombo, 1979

In Simmons’s pilot episode, which aired on February 26th 1979 as a replacement for David Cassidy: Man Undercover, Kate Columbo is a news reporter with a nose for a mystery, solving crimes and raising her daughter, Jenny (future alternative rock violinist Lili Haydn). The casting of Mulgrew also angered Levinson and Link as she was just twenty-four at the time, compared to Falk’s fifty-something detective

Ratings for the five-episode first season were poor and in an attempt to save the show the character was retooled as Kate Callahan, her ex-husband now a completely different policeman named Philip Columbo, and the title changed to Kate the Detective (and still later to Kate Loves a Mystery). The second season began on October 18th 1979 but just six episodes aired before the plug was pulled (a seventh was filmed and aired the following Spring). Lieutenant Columbo did eventually return in 1989, although Levinson had died two years earlier. As a play to the gallery, a 1990 episode of the show was titled “Rest in Peace, Mrs Colombo,” although her eventual fate in left in question.

Next on The Telephemera Years: journeys through time, incognito heartthrobs, and a school for dicks…

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: 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: 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: 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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