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There’s a truism about Hollywood that goes something like this:  You can have it good, you can have it fast, and you can have it cheap.  But you can only get two out of three.

That sounds like a recipe for junk television, especially when networks would like to have things cheap and fast first, and any quality that still exists as part of the final production is almost by accident.  Of course, sometimes, you just need to figure out how to get someone to actually WANT to see your junk, to sell it properly, with a big idea that would gloss over some of the little faults.  And here’s a big idea:  a junkman with a dream….

“I want to build a ship, fly to the moon, salvage all the NASA stuff up there, bring it back to the earth, and sell it.”
–Harry Broderick (Andy Griffith)

Harry Broderick (Andy Griffith) and the "Vulture" spaceship

In January of 1979, ABC premiered a TV-movie called Salvage.  It detailed the rather fantastical tale of that “junkman with a dream”, Harry Broderick (played by beloved actor Andy Griffith).  Harry’s dream, as you can see from the quote above, was rather far-fetched, but he was determined.  Gaining the assistance of former astronaut Skip Carmichael (Joel Higgins) and fuel/tech expert Melanie Slozar (Trish Stewart), these three went about building a spaceship in a junkyard, traveling into space, collecting NASA’s leftovers, and returning safely home again (with a few dramatic complications along the way).  Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

It found a terrific tone between some obvious comedy moments and fun action-adventure drama, and although the actual science was…well…crap, it was dressed up in enough psuedo-realistic explanation that it was easy for the audience to just suspend their disbelief and take the story for exactly what it was:  pure fun.  The suits at ABC knew that they had a potential winner on their hands when they saw the pilot, and decided at once (before it aired) that the slightly renamed Salvage-1 would go to series.  Oh, and by the way, our current schedule is bombing, and we want it for summer, shortly after the pilot movie.  And can you get started filming yesterday?

We're gonna go to the moon!

ABC ordered 12 episodes (almost immediately, in TV terms), and then summer suddenly turned into “late January”, making immediately even shorter.  Co-creator Mike Lloyd Ross was originally a Navy engineer, who brought the concept of the original pilot movie to producer Harve Bennett (best known as the man who killed off Mr. Spock a few years later in Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan).  Ross was not an experienced TV person, but after the studio green-lighted the series, went on to become the supervising producer for the first few episodes.  Having to put together a writing and production staff in a hurry, with no experience, was only one of the tasks necessary for the show.

The series was difficult to write for because it wasn’t a “franchise” show (like a traditional cop/private eye, doctor, or lawyer show), where potential cases (and storylines) simply walked in the door.  You really couldn’t just take an idea for a different show that was lying around and craft it for Salvage-1.  It didn’t work that way, not when your characters main mode of transportation was a homemade rocket ship!  Unless you count the sitcom Sanford and Son, there had never been a show about a junkman before, let alone one who built a rocket to the moon.  We were in uncharted territory here, with unproven production people.

Joel Higgins, Andy Griffith, and Trish Stewart

Fortunately, we had Andy Griffith.  A television veteran (and a veritable legend in the business even then), Griffith had the talent and ability to make even poor scripts watchable, with his easygoing charm and likable manner.  Adding in Joel Higgins (who would later go on to a successful run as the dad in Silver Spoons with Rick Schroder) as the young astronaut Skip, gave the series its handsome action figure, with occasional romantic elements with the lady guest of the week.  Trish Stewart, as the tech expert Melanie, got stuck with much of the expository technobabble, but made the most of it and came off as spirited, attractive, and always ready for the next adventure, wherever it may be.  Trish talks about trying to work under the production time pressure:

“Last night, we were all standing around trying to film a scene that was very static.  Andy is just supposed to hand out mail–very static.  But now, instead of that, when Andy comes in, I’m going to be doing yoga, and Joel is going to be playing the guitar–so that we are active and not static.  We three actors worked that out together.  If the script just doesn’t track, if it doesn’t work, we all sit down and try to work out some hook, some joke, that will pull it together.  It’s like this all the time.  We’re always working to improve the show.  It’s not that we get bad scripts, it’s that everything has been so rushed all season.  We did the pilot, and then a week later got the go-ahead for the show.  They just didn’t have time to get those scripts together.  They’re still working on the scripts while we’re shooting it.”

And yet, with all that rush and potential for disaster, Salvage-1 actually works, at least most of the time.  Whether it’s the charm of the lead characters, or the pure quirkiness of the premise, or just the wide variety of possibilities that suddenly become fodder for episodes, the show ends up as enjoyable television, and is remembered fondly.

Making up the science

The faux science on the show wasn’t necessarily because of any hesitancy on the part of the production staff to be scientifically accurate (Isaac Asimov was a scientific advisor, at least on the pilot), but more because of the production realities of weekly television.  You simply couldn’t afford to launch and land your own rocket ship every week, unless you fudged the science more than a bit.

In order to save time and money (and prevent the production company from falling farther behind than they already were), the pilot established that the “Vulture” used the “translinear vector principle” of constant, slow acceleration to reach escape velocity.  What this really means is that you could just put the ship on a crane and film it, slowly, inching upward (or downward, for landing) and not have to mess with the expense and time of NASA type explosive launches that were just too prohibitive for filming.  Believe it or not, the scientific basis of the “translinear vector principle” is sound, but there just isn’t any type of fuel practical for such a venture, so the producers simply made one up.

Then again, we can’t just go to the moon every week….

“Once you have been to the moon, some astronauts say, everything afterward is a letdown.  That should have provided a clue to the makers of this ABC adventure series.”
–TV Guide critic Robert Mackenzie

So,  what do you do for an encore?  Yes, there was a running gag, set up at the end of the pilot, about moving an iceberg to the coast of California to provide water during a drought.  But that would cost a bundle to shoot, let alone the logistical problems involved with the SFX, and remember, we’re in a hurry here, people!  Oh, and don’t spend too much money while you’re at it….

Harry and his WWII bomber

Surprisingly, there were a lot of alternatives.  A treasure map hidden in a classic car that might lead to a buried stash of Conquistador gold, a long-lost WWII bomber with personal memories for Harry, a spooky haunted house story, and another about a bomb shelter style house that becomes a potential death trap.  You never knew what the team was going to face next, and that was part of the charm of the series.  It also meant different sets, or locations, every week.  So even if you’re going to do a “bottle show” on standing sets to save money, when your standing sets include a rocket ship, you’re going to have to have special effects and blow the budget anyway.

Somehow, those first 12 episodes were finished, and aired on ABC from January through May of 1979.  When ABC announced their schedule for that fall, Salvage-1 was nowhere to be seen, and many thought the show had been canceled.  ABC ended up ordering 7 more episodes, intending to use it as a mid-season replacement again.  Because the show got a late order, the production team was once more trying to do the impossible, cheaply, and by yesterday.  ABC’s first failure of the season happened quickly, meaning that the two-part “Hard Water” episode (the aforementioned iceberg story) was pushed forward, even though it was actually the last story shot.  It aired on consecutive Sunday nights in November of that year, against #1 show 60 Minutes.  Although 4 other episodes were in the can, ABC grounded the “Vulture” and ended Salvage-1, stopping filming as fast as they had begun it.

The Salvage Team

ANDY GRIFFITH (Harry Broderick) is one of the few who can honestly be called a legend of television.  After starring in the eponymous Andy Griffith Show from 1960-68, he guested on numerous series until returning to regular TV with Salvage-1.  From 1986-1995 he played the lead in the series Matlock, playing a sharp-minded lawyer with a laid-back southern manner.  He has appeared in selected projects since, including the movie Waitress and, of all things, a Brad Paisley country music video called Waiting on a Woman (and believe me, for a music video, the performance is outstanding).

JOEL HIGGINS (Skip Carmichael) started in soap operas, appearing on both Search for Tomorrow and One Life to Live.  After piloting the “Vulture”, Joel starred in the short-lived series Best of the West (with Meeno Peluce from Voyagers!) and followed that with his best known role, playing Edward Stratton III for five years on Silver Spoons.  Joel is also an accomplished singer/songwriter, and has written a number of advertising jingles, including for M&M’s and Kool-Aid.  Most recently, he wrote the music/lyrics and directed the musical stage adaptation of cult western movie Johnny Guitar, which won Best Off-Broadway Musical for 2004.

TRISH STEWART (Melanie Slozar) studied at the Sorbonne in Paris during the 60’s, and after a brief career as an airline hostess, went into acting.  In 1973 she created the part of Chris Brooks Foster on The Young and the Restless, as part of the original cast, and stayed with the show for five years before landing (literally) the “Vulture” in Salvage-1.  After a few more guest star parts in the following couple of years, she returned briefly to Y&R in 1984 before she left the business and returned to her home in the midwest.

"Vulture" resin kit

And then, of course, there’s the “Vulture”.  One of the most well-remembered and distinctive spaceships ever created, it’s probably the iconic image from the show.  And although it was never officially released, the Estes model kit company had prepared designs of the “Vulture” for the home hobby market, so you too could put together your own “junkyard spaceship”.  Some fans made resin kits (such as the picture on the right), but these unlicensed products are no longer available.  Those willing to settle for paper modeling (even though it’s still a bit elaborate) can download a file that will give you the specifics to do so.  Blueprints (done with AutoCad, no less) are here, but if you REALLY want to play SFX wizard and have the “Vulture” fly in your own show, there’s a CGI version that, given the right programs, you can download and use to create your own visual effects.  (I told you this show was fondly remembered, and the amount of work some people have done because of it is truly amazing.)

The series ran for a total of 14 aired episodes, plus the 2-hour original pilot movie.  There were four episodes that were made and never shown on the ABC network run, but aired in repeats on the Sci-Fi Channel and overseas.  There is, as yet, no DVD available, although one has been rumored for quite a while, due to the fondness with which the show is remembered and the longevity of star Andy Griffith.  Multiple scenes are available on YouTube.  Actor Peter Brown had a part in the pilot, and his website has a page with numerous pictures and descriptions of the series.

Sometimes, it’s a great show that we remember.  Sometimes, just an iconic image, like the “Vulture”.  Or maybe certain moments, or just the joy of being able to share some long-lost memory with a friend who never had that experience.  And sometimes, although it may be a bit cliché, it’s still true.  All it takes is a dream.

Vital Stats:

14 aired episodes, plus the two-hour pilot movie — 4 unaired episodes (not yet available on DVD)
ABC network
First aired episode:  January 20, 1979
Last aired episode:  November 11, 1979
Actually aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  The pilot aired on a Saturday, and the majority of episodes aired on Mondays at 8/7 Central.  The final two-part finale (“Hard Water”) aired on consecutive Sundays at 7/6 Central.

As usual, comments and suggestions are welcomed.

–Tim R.

Here’s what’s coming this week at Friday, 8/7 Central.–A real blast from the past, going all the way back to the late ’70’s.  Featuring these five lines:

…any quality that still exists as part of the final production is almost by accident.

It found a terrific tone between some obvious comedy moments and fun action/adventure drama…

…best known as the man who killed off Mr. Spock…

“It’s not that we get bad scripts.  It’s just that everything has been so rushed all season.”

…well-remembered and distinctive, it’s probably the most iconic image from the show.

Well, I hope you enjoy it.  You may have heard of it, you may not have.  But I have fond memories of this one, truly.  And I hope you like my take on it as much as I enjoyed the series the first time around.

–Tim R.

PS. Oh, and any model makers out there will love it.  Just saying….

Jimmy, Kevin, Tommy, and Sean. The Donnellys

Family above all.

Words that the Donnelly brothers have lived by.  And by the time it’s over, they may end up dying by them as well.  Growing up in New York City, Irish through and through, they’re ready to rough it up at the drop of a hat.  They’ll fight each other if they have to (often, it seems), but if you want to mess with one of them, well…. they are family, above all.  And you?  You’re not.

“I thought, well, this speaks to what we’re doing here, because we’re asking you to empathize with murderers and drug-dealers.  But then, this definitely is a tragedy.  You pretty much get the sense of doom from the first frame.  This ain’t going to end well for anybody.”
–co-creator Paul Haggis, The Black Donnellys

We hear their story through the words of Joey Ice-Cream (played by Keith Nobbs), a small time (and rather inept) hustler who “always wanted brothers like that.”  Joey’s nickname comes from the giant bucket of ice cream he helped the Donnellys steal as a kid, and then promptly dropped in the middle of the street… although Joey says that the nickname is “because when the heat’s on, I’m like ice.”  (He’s not even close.)  As we see repeatedly, even in the introduction of the show, Joey is not the most reliable narrator in the world.

Despite this, we still see the episodes through him, as he tells the stories of the Donnelly brothers, both their current exploits and flashbacks of their growing up, and how those childhood experiences made them into the men they are becoming today.  The events of those dubious narratives, both then and now, are emotional, dramatic, and at turns darkly funny and incredibly violent.

The Donnellys grew up in one of the poor ethnic neighborhoods of New York City, and are now caught between the Italian mob that runs some of the streets, and the Irish mob who run the rest.  And thanks to circumstances both of their own making and beyond their control, they walk the fine line of playing both sides and trying not to end up dead in the middle.

All for one, and one for all

First, there’s Tommy (Jonathan Tucker).  He’s supposedly the good one.  The smart one.  He’s going to art school, trying to get out of the neighborhood and make a better life, but still attracted to his childhood sweetheart Jenny (Olivia Wilde) who’s already treated as part of the family.  There’s just one problem.  Guilt over something in that childhood makes him the one who has to bail his ne’er-do-well brothers out of the scrapes they get into, and ultimately force him to become all of those things he’s wanting to leave behind.

His biggest problem is eldest brother Jimmy (Thomas Guiry).  Jimmy won the bar the boys use as their base, complete with a tax lien and rotting floors, and would likely fight you as look at you.  Often drunk, now on drugs, and with a history of theft, he was dealt a crummy hand early in life (his leg having been permanently damaged by a hit-and-run driver).   He has fought the world to make whatever he could of his existence in it, and damn the methods to do so.  Jimmy also, unknowingly at the time, played a part in the death of his own father.  More reason for his pain and anger.

Kevin (Billy Lush) has, in the words of Joey Ice-Cream, “…thought of himself as a gambler.  He always believed he was lucky.  The fact that he’d never won a bet in his life somehow never dissuaded him of this notion.”  In other words, smarts always took a back seat to playing the big odds.  And so, when Kevin ends up in Dutch to a local bookie, the brothers try to help, in ways legal and illegal.  And that’s where the action starts….

Did I mention action?  The brother who’s busy getting some action is baby brother Sean (Michael Stahl-David), the looker of the bunch and the one you didn’t leave your girlfriend alone with, or you didn’t have a girlfriend for long.  Like Kevin, Sean’s not the brightest neon sign in the bar, since he’s always had looks and charm to make it through instead.  Those attributes, however, have a habit of charming the wrong/attached/married girl along the way… or just placing him in the absolutely wrong place at the absolutely wrong time….

“I think we just look for great stories, fabulous dilemmas, I mean that — and questions that are unanswerable, and we tried to put our characters into situations where we wouldn’t want to be and then help them make choices that we wouldn’t ever want to make, and that we always do.”
–Paul Haggis

Tommy has to choose his path

Choices.  Legal or illegal choices, angry or compassionate choices, life or death choices.  Dealing with what you want out of life, what life deals to you along the way, and the people and circumstances that help or hinder those choices in wonderful, terrible ways.   The Black Donnellys was all about choices.  The coming train wreck was certain.  You didn’t know exactly how, or exactly when.  But you knew, you KNEW, that out of the four brothers, at least one, and perhaps all of them, were bound to choose, or be forced to choose, very badly.  And like a train wreck that you can see coming, you can’t tear your eyes away… even, or maybe especially, when there’s nothing you can do about it, no matter how hard you want to try to save them all.  These are not only the choices of the Donnellys, but also of the creators and viewers as well.

“I want to make it clear that this is not a biography.  I was one of those guys who were out in the streets.  I had five brothers growing up… and I spent a lot of my life trying to understand how people that you love and respect and honor can do monstrous things and become monsters, but then be the people that you thought you loved, and that’s a strange dichotomy to try to get hold of.”
–co-creator Bobby Moresco

Bobby Moresco had seen that life.  He’d seen the choices people had made in that environment.  Did those memories really happen, or are they just his fabricated stories with a simple veneer of truth?  It is the same choice the viewer has to make in deciding if Joey Ice-Cream is relating the stories honestly or not at any given moment.  Are the Donnellys really that bad?  Are they worse?  Is there hope for redemption?  Are they heroes, villains, or just caught in circumstance and trying to stay alive?  When watching the show, you don’t get to just let it wash over you.  You have to be involved, and you have to decide who you want to root for, who you hope falls in love, who should sacrifice themselves, and is the price someone pays for family worth the cost?  The choices, and the answers, are always involving but never easy.  In this coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of the criminal world of good and bad and the grey in-between, there are never any guarantees.  Just family, above all.

Tommy and Jenny... and hoping for better.

JONATHAN TUCKER (Tommy Donnelly) started appearing on screen at the age of 13, and has played in movies such as The Virgin Suicides, Hostage, and Pulse.  He has also guested on a number of TV series, including 2 versions of Law and Order (SVU and CI), the wonderfully quirky Six Feet Under, and most recently on White Collar.

THOMAS GUIRY (Jimmy Donnelly) started even younger, appearing in the movie The Sandlot at the age of 12.  As an adult, he had roles in Black Hawk Down and Mystic River, and most recently was seen in the NBC series Kings.

BILLY LUSH (Kevin Donnelly) was in the miniseries Generation Kill, and has many TV guest appearances as well, including, similarly to Jonathan Tucker, both L&O SVU and L&O CI, Six Feet Under, and CSI.  The man could use mostly initials on his resume, and lots of television casting agents would understand.

After MICHAEL STAHL-DAVID (Sean Donnelly) finished trying to run from various mobs, he ran from a monstrous “something” in the movie Cloverfield.  Finally getting a “normal” role, he’s in the pilot for an ABC dramedy this coming fall called Generation Y.

OLIVIA WILDE (Jenny) had been in the teen drama The O.C. prior to The Black Donnellys, and went on to be the infamous Thirteen on the medical drama House.  She will be in the TRON Legacy movie this winter, as well as the already announced sequel TRON Evolution and the upcoming comic book film Cowboys and Aliens.

Assuming he’s telling the truth this time, KEITH NOBBS (Joey Ice-Cream) has been in a number of different TV shows, including In Plain Sight, Numb3rs, Fringe, and (here we go again) L&O SVU and L&O CI.  Most recently he has appeared in six episodes of the HBO miniseries The Pacific.

Creators PAUL HAGGIS and BOBBY MORESCO first worked together on the critically acclaimed TV show EZ Streets (another crime drama which someday hopefully will be covered by this blog), but are best known for winning the Oscar for co-authoring the movie Crash, as well as producing the TV series of the same name.  They also produced/wrote the Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby.  Haggis is a TV veteran, having co-created Walker, Texas Ranger and Due South, while Moresco was a producer on Millennium, and even once acted on (wait for it….) the original Law and Order!

The Donnelly Brothers, with Joey Ice-Cream

The show is available on DVD, and iTunes and Amazon both have the individual episodes available for individual purchase and downloading.  There are no extras on the DVD but the super-secret NBC site (which you can’t access from the main NBC site anymore) still has some commentary available.  Only six episodes of the series actually aired by NBC in 2007, with the other seven being run weekly on the web after the show was canceled (one of the first shows to do so, and rather successfully for the time).  Later that year, the entire series was shown on HDNet.  One episode, titled “God is a Comedian”, wasn’t allowed to air on NBC for content reasons and the NBC synopsis only has one picture and the 2-line TV Guide tag-line.  Thankfully, the entire episode is on the DVD.

This is what I call a “challenge” show.  Shot on location in New York, it was a challenge to write, to shoot, to produce, and to finally get it on the air.  The characters are not heroes, sometimes not even likable, and you’re not always certain who you should be rooting for.  You don’t even know if you should believe the narrator or not.  It makes the viewer do the same thing it makes the characters do:  make a choice.  In the viewer’s case, the choice is to become actively involved.  Viewers must choose to devote themselves to watching a densely plotted, numerous character, occasionally unattractive and violent show.  But viewers who make that choice are rewarded with rich, emotional, and strong stories about people who we hope against all odds will find a way to make their lives have meaning.  One more quote from Bobby Moresco:

“The most abiding lesson that I think I’ve taken is that you pay a moral price for each and every act and each and every choice you make in life.  You don’t know what that price is going to be, but you’re going to pay it.”

Some people won’t even watch certain new shows anymore, especially shows that are challenging, because they think “it’ll just get canceled”.  Some shows are worth falling in love with anyway, even if your heart gets broken.  Some shows are worth the price.  Like The Black Donnellys.  At least, that’s what Joey Ice-Cream told me, and he’d never lie.

Vital stats:

6 aired episodes — 7 unaired episodes (available on DVD)
NBC network
First aired episode:  February 26, 2007 (Mondays at 10, 9 central)
Last aired episode:  April 2, 2007
Actually aired on Friday at 8/7 Central:  no, unless you started it at that time for the web only episodes!

Odd trivia:  The original name for the show was going to be The Truth According to Joey Ice-Cream.  The Black Donnellys were, in real life, a family of Irish thieves that ultimately were brutally murdered in their adopted home in Ontario, Canada.  NBC never really made clear what the series was truly about in the early promos, and the series title was supposed to simply evoke the idea of being both right and wrong, and heroes or victims depending on how you viewed the law.  All the promotional effort really did was confuse the potential audience.

Comments welcomed and encouraged, as always.

Tim R.

Coming this week, on Friday 8/7 Central… a show from the mid-to-late 2000’s.

“This ain’t going to end well for anybody.”

“We tried to put our characters into situations where we wouldn’t want to be.”

The coming train wreck was certain.

“…that’s a strange dichotomy to try to get hold of.”

One episode wasn’t allowed to air for content reasons.

Five quotes from the article.  Three from people involved in the show.  It’s not a pretty, fun show this time.  It’s dark, it’s messy, and it’s challenging just to watch.  I hope you enjoy the post.  Come back Friday and see.

–Tim R.

P.S. Feel free to take some guesses on what show it is in the comments area, if you want.  I may (or may not) own up to the right answer….

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