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 TV junkies must have been absolutely salivating at the new Fall season line-up in 1981, including as it did such treasures as The Fall Guy, TJ Hooker, Cagney & Lacey, Falcon Crest, and Fame! They joined a schedule already dominated by Dallas, The Dukes of Hazzard, and M*A*S*H as American TV continued through one of its truly golden eras. There were goodbyes to be said to Mork & Mindy, The Incredible Hulk, and Lou Grant, but network TV was in a very good place with the top nineteen shows all averaging over twenty million viewers per episode.
The only one struggling was NBC, continuing a ratings slump that had begun in six years before and would continue until Bill Cosby, Michael J Fox, and Mr T dragged it out of the mire a few years later, although Late Night with David Letterman did make its debut in February 1982. For genre fans, the final seasons of The Incredible Hulk and Mork & Mindy were joined by a new arrival called The Greatest American Hero on ABC, as well as single-season classic Police Squad!, but those are the shows that made it to series – what about those that didn’t? This is the story of 1981’s unsold pilots…Hero
Quick and Quiet (CBS): Someone at CBS was determined that veteran character actor William Windom should play a ghostly detective. 1980’s Landon, Landon & Landon saw him star as Ben Landon, murdered in the line of duty only to return as a ghost to help his adult children keep his detective agency running and – of course – be the father to them he never was in life.
Landon, Landon & Landon wasn’t picked up as a series and so writer Bruce Kalish (who’d scripted the first pilot with his Mork & Mindy writing partner Philip John Taylor) retooled the idea and transformed Windom’s character – now called Thaddeus Charles (or TC) Cooper – into a man who is as dead as he is deadbeat, helping his son to rescue the ailing Quick & Quiet Detective Agency he bequeathed him in his will.
The new script, written with playwright Sam Bobrick (who would one day create Saved by the Bell), gave the starring role to TC’s son, Elliot (played by Rick Lohman), every bit as desperate as his father, who in this version died while in flagrante delicto with his secretary, Camille (Millie Slavin). Elliot is only holding onto the business because selling it wouldn’t raise enough cash to pay his gambling debts but with a hand from his ghostly old man – a hand that also finds its way to pinching Camille’s butt once in a while – they might just save the day.
Just as they’d done with Landon, Landon & Landon, CBS passed on taking Quick and Quiet to series, instead trusting that its new sitcom line-up – which included such treats as Baker’s Dozen, Making the Grade, and Report to Murphy, none of which lasted more than six episodes – could get the job done. Windom died in 2012 without, as far as I know, playing a ghost detective, although with over 250 credits on his filmography, you can forgive me for being as slapdash as TC Cooper.
The Munsters’ Revenge (NBC): For two seasons in the mid-1960s – and no matter what fans of The Addams Family might say – The Munsters ruled the admittedly niche world of horror sitcoms. Frankenstein’s monster Herman, vampire wife Lily, werewolf son Eddie, and Lily’s vampire dad Grandpa were the first family of creepy comedy and – look! – isn’t it hilarious that their niece is disgustingly normal?
As their CBS TV run ended, The Munsters transferred to the silver screen with Munster, Go Home!, a box office flop that saw the family inherit a stately home in England, and then pretty much disappeared from existence, save for a 1973 animated special, The Mini Munsters, which saw only Al Lewis return as Grandpa in an otherwise all-new voice cast. In 1981, though, the original cast – save for Butch Patrick, who had long outgrown the role of Eddie – were reunited, but only after Fred Gwynne had given NBC an astronomical price for his participation, expecting them to balk. Instead, they paid up and decided to test the water for a possible revival series with a pilot film entitled The Munsters’ Revenge.
The plot of The Munsters’ Revenge begins with a family outing to a wax museum, where a very lifelike exhibit of our frightful family is on display. After the museum closes for the night, we discover that the wax dummies are actually robots as an evil scientist activates “Herman” and “Grandpa,” sending them off on a crime spree. The next morning, police arrive to arrest the real Herman and Grandpa, who escape from custody and set out to clear their names.
To say that The Munsters’ Revenge was eagerly anticipated is an understatement: their former network CBS were so worried that the pilot would destroy them in the ratings that they scheduled a rare showing of The Wizard of Oz as competition. As it happened, the excitement of the networks did not rub off on the viewers at home and the new series of The Munsters had to wait until 1988’s The Munsters Today, by which time none of the original cast were interesting in returning.
J Digger Doyle (CBS): Glen A Larson was already producing Battlestar Galactica and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries for ABC when he began development on Magnum, PI. When ABC cancelled his other two shows, Larson took Magnum to CBS, casting Tom Selleck, a jobbing actor who had turned heads with a recurring role as a rival PI on The Rockford Files. Selleck signed on for the show – about a detective operating out of a private estate in Hawaii, missing out on the part of Indian Jones on Raiders of the Lost Ark when filming for the two clashed.
As it was, a SAG/AFTRA strike caused the start date on Magnum to be pushed back by three months, which meant that he could starred as George Lucas’s wise-cracking archaeologist after all, but Selleck made Magnum his own, appearing in 162 episodes over eight seasons. It was in one of those outings – in the first season, in fact – that he encountered J Digger Doyle, an archaeologist turned security expert played by Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s Erin Gray.
In the episode named for her, Doyle flirts with Magnum in order to get him to give her a tour of Robin’s Nest, the home of Magnum’s unseen benefactor Robin Masters. Once inside, she reveals that has been brought in to find gaps in the estate’s security in the face of a threat to steal tapes of Masters’s new book. After Higgins is kidnapped and rescued, and Magnum and Doyle work out that it might be her own boss who is behind the caper, the tapes are safe and it is revealed that the book’s plot revolves around selling laser technology to the Russians, which upset someone, somewhere. It’s not terribly clear. What is clear is that Magnum and Doyle have chemistry and the episode ends with a make-out session.
Gray’s turn in “J Digger Doyle” was intended to be a backdoor pilot for a series of her own, one which you’d imagine would have seen her travel the world lending her security expertise – and presumably her feminine wiles – to the highest bidder. It wasn’t to be, though, and Gray bounced back by landing the role of Kate Summers in Silver Spoons. Magnum tried again with season three’s “Two Birds of a Feather,” looking to launch William Lucking’s treasure hunter into a series of his own, but that also failed to develop into a full series.
The Archer (NBC): Sword and sorcery was big in the early 1980s, with Hawk the Slayer, Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer, and Excalibur all thrilling movie goers and Arnold Schwarzenegger about to make his big splash as Conan the Barbarian. Where movies go, TV follows, and so NBC dipped their toes into the genre with The Archer, written and directed by Vietnam veteran Nicholas J Corea.
The Archer was the story of Toran, the fugitive son of a murdered King who must find the mysterious Lazar-sa if his people have any hope of overthrowing the evil Dynasty, led by Gar and his snake people. Playing Toran was Lane Caudell, a singer-songwriter signed to MCA Records who hung up his guitar after two albums, seven singles, and not much in the way of chart success, who had dabbled with sword and sorcery imagery as a member of soft-rock trio Skyband.
Caudell had already starred in two failed pilots for NBC when he was cast as Toran and it’s easy to see why the network persevered with him, although the complex plot and plethora of ridiculous names found in Corea’s script do him no favours. The pilot ends with Toran avenging his father’s death and continuing his search for Lazar-sa, unaware that his mortal enemy Gar is still alive and thirsty for revenge. With beautiful sorceress Estra (Belinda Bauer) and her complicated feelings for Toran thrown into the mix, the TV series that would surely follow looked to be a ton of fun.
There was no TV series that followed, and NBC made the most of their investment by releasing the pilot as a standalone TV movie under the names The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire and The Archer and the Sorceress, made available on VHS in the US and with a limited theatrical release in Europe. Caudell landed a role on Days of Our Lives but soon left acting and music behind for a relatively normal life as a country music session musician, although he did call his son – born in 1982 – Toran.
The Return of the Beverly Hillbilies (CBS): If this column proves nothing else it’s that there is no shortage of new half-baked ideas for TV shows, with every year providing a fresh crop to be cut down in its prime before the end of its season order. Nostalgia, though, is a demanding mistress and – as The Munster’s Revenge neatly illustrates – there’s no shame in dusting off an old half-baked idea for a TV show once in a while.
That can surely be the only reason why CBS decided to bring back The Beverly Hillbillies, ten years after the original show – which ran for an astonishing nine seasons after its 1962 debut – spluttered to an end in March 1971. Buddy Ebsen, Donna Douglas, and Nancy Kulp all returned from the original cast, but Irene Ryan had died two years after the original show ended and The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies made that a story point, with Jed Clampett returning to his backwoods cabin rather than live alone in his mansion after the death of his mother-in-law, having divided his fortune between daughter Ellie-May and nephew Jethro Bodine.
When an energy crisis hits the new Reagan administration, they send the Clampetts’ former friend Jane Hathaway and her obnoxious boss at the Department of Energy to find Jed to see if Granny’s powerful moonshine is the answer to the gas shortage. After a series of mishaps results in Jed’s supply of the hooch running dry, they embark on a quest to find Granny’s mother, the only one who knows the recipe…
Writer-producer (and creator of the original show) Paul Henning fully intended The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies to presage a full-time return for the oil-rich bumpkins but it did less than stellar ratings when it was aired as a CBS Tuesday Night Movie in October 1981, possibly because it was preceded by an hour-long special news broadcast on the assassination of Anwar Sadat but more probably because it was The Beverly Hillbillies in 1981. Still, the pilot did achieve one thing in giving Heather Locklear her TV debut, affecting the tightness of teenage boys’ trousers for the next decade.
Next on The Telephemera Years: What the kids were watching in 1981, including some very amazing friends!
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