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Written By:

Alan Boon
David Cassidy - Man Undercover, 1978

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 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 more shows that fell at the first hurdle…

Time Express (CBS): Having walked away from Charlie’s Angels when the producers wanted to turn their creation into a run of the mill action show, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts spent time looking for a new project. After bringing Logan’s Run to TV in 1978, the veteran writing duo again turned to science-fiction for their follow-up, the story of a mysterious train that would carry passengers to a point in their lives when a key decision was made, in order that they could have a do-over.

Time Express starred Vincent Price and Coral Browne as Jason and Margaret Winters, the hosts of the Time Express in the same way that Ricardo Montalban oversaw Fantasy Island. Indeed, Time Express had much in common with that show (and with the less fantastic Love Boat), with each episode presenting two passengers with the chance to fix whatever they think is wrong with their lives, aided by train driver William Phillips and conductor James Reynolds.

Time Express, 1978

The real stars, though, were the guests passing through the train terminal each week, and the first episode saw Jerry Stiller’s businessman given the chance to return $2 million he found in a bin in 1969, and James MacArthur’s doctor an opportunity to visit 1967 to search for his wife’s long-lost brother. Subsequent episodes featured Richard Masur, Robert Hooks, and Steve Kanaly, all from the world of soaps which reveals the audience that Time Express was pitched at.

For whatever reason, that audience wasn’t watching, and the show was pulled after just four episodes aired as a test in the Spring of 1979, any prospect of a full season for Fall 1979 running out of, well, time. It was the last show that Goff and Roberts worked on together, although they did write a screenplay for The Legend of the Lone Ranger in 1981, retiring to live on their Charlie’s Angel money, although it is not known if they used it to open a time-travelling railway franchise.

David Cassidy: Man Undercover (NBC): After The Partridge Family ended in 1974 and his post-Partridge pop career had stalled, David Cassidy came back to TV in May 1978 as a guest star in a special two-hour episode of crime anthology drama Police Story. Once a regular on the hit parade, both with The Partridge Family and as a solo artist, Cassidy was still clinging to teen heartthrob status in 1978 and despite only one of his last thirteen singles charting (at #105), he could still be found on the covers of teen magazines. Besides, weren’t his original teen fans now grown women interested in something a bit more substantial, anyway?

In “A Chance to Live,” the final episode of Police Story’s fifth season, Cassidy played Dan Shay, an undercover policeman in Los Angeles. Sent undercover into a high school to sniff out a narcotics ring, relying on his useful looks to pass as a student. Although Police Story was all but cancelled, reactions to the episode were good enough that a Dan Shay show – David Cassidy: Man Undercover – was commissioned, debuting on Thursday nights in November 1978.

David Cassidy - Man Undercover, 1978

With only homespun detective drama Barnaby Jones on CBS as any real competition in its time slot, NBC expected Man Undercover to clean up in the ratings, especially with the borderline sensational stories that opened the series. In the first four episodes alone, Shay had to deal with the prospect his boss might be a vigilante, a baby-making ring at a local college, and an outlaw motorcycle gang, with subsequent cases involving serial killers, prostitution, and drugged-up teens. The Partridge Family this wasn’t!

The show was created by Larry Brody and Richard Fielder, two veterans of the TV scriptwriting game. Belying their long career on more traditional shows, Man Undercover was fresh, innovative, and edgy – a 21 Jump Street ten years before that show arrived. However, it just couldn’t find an audience, even with Cassidy on board, and was pulled from the schedules after just ten episodes had aired. There’s never been a home video release, and it’s not available for streaming, but there are episodes on YouTube that are well worth your time, even if you were more of a Leif Garrett fan…

Detective School (ABC): Diff’rent Strokes debuted in November 1978 and it was hard to find anyone who didn’t love the story of a rich white man taking in two poor young black boys who taught him as much about life as he did them about table manners. The show was the first time creators Jeff Harris and Bernie Kukoff had been given the chance to create something over of their own after a decade of working on staff at ABC and the smash hit opened the door for another of their creations, Detective School.

Initially intended for Fall 1979, the new show instead premiered as a late-season replacement in July 1979, usually a quiet time for TV as people enjoy being outdoors. The first episode introduced Nick Hannigan (played by Barney Miller’s James Gregory), a veteran private detective who supplements his income by teaching others the tricks of his trade. His class are a hapless bunch, including Douglas Fowley as Robert Redford (not the actor, to much hilarity). Melinda Naud as a lingerie model, Taylor Negron as a disco dancer, and LaWanda Page as a loud-mouthed housewife.

Detective School, 1979

Keen to impress, the aspiring dicks get into all kinds of trouble but usually end up solving the case, whether they knew there was one to be solved or not! The first three episodes garnered encouraging, if not spectacular, ratings and the series resumed as had been initially planned in September 1979 with a story that saw the gang infiltrate the Bulgarian embassy to rescue a ballet dancer.

Unfortunately, it was moved from Tuesday to Saturday night, up against a CHiPs on NBC which was pulling in over twenty-million viewers. With that kind of competition, even a show as heartwarming as Detective School (and with the unique gimmick of the studio audience applauding the detectives when they unmasked the culprits) wasn’t going to fare well and it lasted for just two months, finishing with a thirteenth episode that saw the students taken hostage in a bank.

Sword of Justice (NBC): There are few better names in all of television than Dack Rambo. It’s a fact. Don’t even bother trying to argue against it. As cool a name as that is, the actor it belonged to had a tough time escaping a niche he’d fallen into as a result of his first big break in the western drama The Guns of Will Sonnett. Put simply, Dack was a cowboy and even non-western roles he was offered as a guest star never strayed too far from that lawless concept. An adventure show created by Michael Gleason and Glen A Larson, Sword of Justice was Dack’s chance to escape his fate.

He was Jack Martin Cole, a rich playboy who had been framed and wrongly imprisoned for embezzlement. On his release, he dedicated himself to vengeance, targeting those who played a role in incriminating him, leaving behind a three of clubs (the number of years he spent in jail) as a calling card. Cole was aided in his endeavours by Hector Ramirez (Bert Rosario), his former cellmate and a petty criminal with a good heart, and the calling cards he left were collected by FBI special investigator Arthur Woods, a former lawyer who had defended Cole at trial and was motivated by his wrongful conviction to form a federal task force to take down white collar crime.

Sword of Justice, 1978

Sword of Justice debuted with a two-hour episode on Sunday September 10th 1978, with the rest of the series airing on Saturdays at 10pm. The villain of the first story was played by Larry Hagman, ironic since the show was put up against CBS’s Dallas (and Fantasy Island on ABC). Even a chance to see the real bad guys taken down wasn’t enough of a draw for ordinary American folk and just nine episodes aired before it was replaced in the schedules by The Rockford Files, another show about an innocent ex-con.

The remaining filmed episode was shown in July 1979, by which time Dack had returned to guest star roles, not finding any kind of settled home until Dallas in 1985, where he played cousin Jack Ewing. In 1991, Dack Rambo revealed he was HIV positive and was bisexual. Three years later, at the age of 52, he died of complications from AIDS. He still has one of the best names in all of television.

Next on The Telephemera Years: Benedict Cumberwho? Dr Strange and other curiosities…

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: 1978 (part 1)

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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