“This–appliance, I suppose you should call it–is an ordeal. I have to get up at 4 a.m. and spend three hours in makeup while they mold it on me before I come to work. It’s unbearably hot. I insist on a day off in every script so my flesh can breathe.”
–Roddy McDowall, detailing the trials of playing Galen on Planet of the Apes
Making a television series is very difficult, much more than most people realize. All members of the production work long days (and long nights). Work takes its toll, corners get cut for time and budget, and quality sometimes suffers. Even for an ordinary series, production is like a runaway freight train, and anything in its way gets run over. Imagine what kind of problems ensue for a science fiction show with significant location shooting and major make-up time for most of the cast. This certainly wasn’t paradise… it was the Planet of the Apes.
For five of six years running (1968-1973) movie houses had played to large crowds with the continuing saga chronicled in the Planet of the Apes films. CBS believed it would have a definite winner on its hands with a TV series based on the franchise. While the basic story was similar to the first movie, the TV version involved 1980 astronauts Pete Burke (James Naughton) and Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) crash-landing on Earth in the distant future. Man had become a lesser slave species in that future time, and the dominant forces were Apes.
The most curious of these Apes were the chimpanzees, shown through Galen (Roddy McDowall). He was a younger, more open-minded ape wanting to find out about these strange new humans, befriending them even though they (and now he) were seen as outlaws by the rest of the Ape community. Dr. Zaius (Booth Colman) was the intelligent, scientifically minded orangutan, originally Galen’s mentor, who also wanted to “save” the new humans, but only to experiment on them. The military was mostly gorillas, led by General Urko (Mark Lenard). He was afraid that these astronauts would lead the remaining passive humans in an insurrection against the Apes, and was therefore motivated to hunt them down and kill them. Of course, he was literally aping previous human behavior….
“… you’ll destroy me. As your kind once destroyed its world. Your science and your machines… very few know your history, and very few will ever know. Your cities… death and destruction. We don’t want them. We don’t even want their memory. Yes, you did it to yourselves. As you would do it again….”
The humans had done it before, just not against the Apes. Man had hunted down their own kind, almost to the point of extinction. The “twist” ending of the movie when viewers find out that human civilization had fallen through its own war and violence was part of the initial storyline of the series, with Dr. Zaius and Urko (among a few others) trying to keep that knowledge secret and preserve the Ape status quo. Ironically, much of Ape society is as violent and aggressive as humans were, if only because of their fears of humans. Only Galen, through his desire for understanding and friendship across the fear, is willing to create the sympathetic bridge showing the superiority of understanding, no matter what.
If the scripts had shown this intellectual premise more, the series might have been successful. But the network believed enough people would tune in for Apes and action, and with all the other roadblocks of production, maybe they hoped those would be enough. They weren’t.
“The scripts were emphasizing action and interaction with the apes rather than deep storylines. The producers would get awfully upset if we didn’t have some kind of action going in the first five pages of a script.”
What followed was a mostly straightforward exercise in formula. Many of the episodes had the basic template of: our heroes are being chased, one of the trio is captured, the other two figure out how to help him escape, and the three run away again until the next episode. The design in various forms had worked well enough in the movies previously, and CBS was so sure the idea would gather viewers they bought the series for television with no pilot at all. Who needed a pilot when there were already five theatrical movies to show how it’s done?
“If the actor does not make that mask come alive, the whole characterization falls apart.”
–Marvin Paige, casting director for Planet of the Apes
The biggest concern (initially) was replacing Roddy McDowall, the actor who had played the various lead chimps (Cornelius and Caesar) in four of the five movies. Thinking he wouldn’t want the weekly grind of television production, the producers were pleasantly surprised to find that McDowall wanted the part, even after all the time he’d already spent under the chimp makeup. Because of previous problems with the makeup, McDowall had to have surgery to remove cysts that had developed on his eyes, and his face was therefore insured for $1 million dollars from Lloyd’s of London. His contract also stated he was to be given at least one day off per week in order to rest his face from the toll that the ape makeup took on his skin. (A four-day work week sounds cushy, but realize he couldn’t eat solid food while wearing the chimp makeup for 12 hours a day!) Still, with his experience and talent, no one else was better suited to play the part.
Many of the “background” Ape characters were given generic masks used in multiple episodes. Featured guest stars were also given this type of treatment simply because there wasn’t time to create the kind of tailored appliances that McDowell, Coleman, and Lenard received. That may have been a blessing in “disguises” for the smaller parts, as Mark Lenard notes about playing General Urko:
“If I’m supposed to report on the set in my makeup at eight in the morning, that means I have to be at the studio by five to be ready on time. It’s terribly hot in there. I’m under five layers of fur and leather.”
At least gorilla makeup allowed for solid food, but even then lunch caused problems for Lenard:
“At first, I had to use a mirror to make sure I was getting the food in my mouth. But now I can eat without the mirror. I can eat almost everything, but some things are impossible to handle. I ordered spare ribs one day, and I simply couldn’t manage them. They sat on my plate and I just looked at them.”
As humans, filming Planet of the Apes wasn’t easy for Naughton and Harper either. The series used many outdoor locations, primarily on a ranch outside of Malibu. Instead of enduring makeup hassles, they endured physical ones brought on by the pace of shooting. Filming began in July during a hot Southern California summer, with the actors often racing for their onscreen lives.
“We were given seven days to do an episode but, I swear, some weeks it felt like we were knocking them out in five days or less. The human beings in this show never rode horses and so we were always running and always being chased by the apes. Some directors, particularly if a script was a little thin, would say, ‘Okay, go out there about 2-300 yards and run into the camera.'”
Even when they got a chance to cool off, it turned into a physical trial. You’d think a nice cool dip in the ocean would be a relief, but….
“We had an episode [Tomorrow’s Tide] where Jim and I had to be filmed underwater being menaced by a shark. We had to go down 35 feet into the ocean, with lead weights tied to our rags, wearing a mask and a breathing device. They brought in the cameras and a mechanical shark. At the director’s signal we had to take off the mask and swim around and try to act. They figured they would save air by starting us at the bottom rather than having us free dive into the water first. But it was real cold and, after a couple of hours, they basically had to haul us out because we were close to getting hypothermia.”
For their part, the network put more effort into promotion than they did into the series itself, thinking that name recognition and the simple novelty of seeing the incredible makeup was enough. CBS had bought into a franchise that had made millions of dollars over the last decade, was already well-known by viewers, and brought with it ready-made merchandising galore. If only the network had remembered to actually produce stories that were consistently worth watching.
There were some good ideas here about large topics like race relations, militaristic and scientific points of view, and political upheaval. But those ideas weren’t developed as well as they could have been, and it’s hard to marry those ideas with a series format that was really designed to be action/adventure from the start, especially when producers were pressed for time and money. Action is easy, ideas are hard, and Planet of the Apes was already difficult to make. Thanks to CBS thinking they were going to have an automatic hit simply due to pedigree, the network scheduled it against NBC comedies Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man, which happened to be the #2 and #3 rated shows on television at the time.
The obvious result was that astronauts Burke and Virdon weren’t just lost in time, they were pretty much lost at sea when the series was canceled after three months and 13 aired episodes. (Literally lost at sea. The final aired episode ends with the astronauts and Galen drifting on a raft to who knows where.) They were luckier than the other network competition, as ABC’s Kodiak only lasted a month (4 episodes), and The Six Million Dollar Man (whose scheduled start time was at the half-hour mark of Planet of the Apes) was only saved by moving it away to an easier time slot.
Well, at least one crash-landing astronaut survived… but he ended up with bionic parts and 100 episodes.
RODDY MCDOWALL (Galen) had such a lengthy showbiz career, it’s a shame he’s best known for a role which never showed his real face. Starting as a child actor in 1938, he appeared in movies as varied as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Disney’s That Darn Cat. A stalwart of the live TV era of the ’50s, he easily segued into a likeable TV presence with series regular roles in The Fantastic Journey and Tales of the Gold Monkey, plus more guest roles than you can count. In his later years he was a common but distinctive presence in many voice-over productions, including Pirates of Dark Water, The Black Hole, Pinky and the Brain, and A Bug’s Life. McDowall passed on due to lung cancer in 1998, a talent definitely missed.
(An aside on McDowall: He was almost universally loved both in and out of the industry, and one of the best historians of Hollywood. His own photography is the centerpiece of the Motion Picture Academy’s historical collection, and in due tribute the entire collection is named after him. He was also an avid archivist of film and video (before the advent of VCRs and DVDs), to the point that he was arrested in 1974 (the same year as Planet of the Apes on TV) for his private collection valued THEN at over $5 million dollars! He was not charged, and although he was one of the early video “pirates” in theory, his preservation of long-lost gems from the history of Hollywood served a most valuable purpose.)
JAMES NAUGHTON (Pete Burke) won two Tony awards on Broadway for his lead musical roles in 1990’s City of Angels and 1997’s Chicago. Movie roles included The Paper Chase, The First Wives Club, and The Devil Wears Prada. On television, he appeared in Faraday and Company, Who’s the Boss?, Brooklyn Bridge, and Gossip Girl. In recent years he’s hit the cabaret circuit, performing a one-man show to great reviews.
RON HARPER (Alan Virdon) got his TV start on various Westerns, but was best known as the lead character in the war series Garrison’s Gorillas. Geek fans know him as Uncle Jack in the final season of the original Land of the Lost. Other significant parts included two years on the soap series Generations and guest parts in Remington Steele, The West Wing, and Cold Case.
BOOTH COLMAN (Dr. Zaius) acted constantly on TV from the ’50’s through the ’70’s, in shows like The Untouchables, Bonanza, The Flying Nun, and Mission: Impossible. After a stint on General Hospital in the ’80’s, he made a tradition out of performing as Ebenezer Scrooge onstage in A Christmas Carol, recreating the role over 500 times back in his “home theatre” near Detroit for many, many years.
MARK LENARD (General Urko) was used to makeup, donning pointed ears for the role of Spock’s Vulcan father Sarek on the original Star Trek, a part he revisited multiple times in animated, movie, and subsequent series stories. In other Star Trek appearances, he also portrayed a Romulan and a Klingon, making him a fan favorite at numerous conventions. Non-Trek roles included the antagonists in the comedy series Here Come the Brides in the late ’60’s and Cliffhangers in the ’70’s. He died of multiple myeloma in 1996. (I had the pleasure of meeting him once, and seeing him perform on stage. He was a great and gracious man.)
Despite its limited run on television, the Planet of the Apes franchise was still very successful. Merchandising and spin-off material included comic books (and a daily syndicated newspaper strip), action figures, novels, even coloring books and an animated series called Return to the Planet of the Apes on Saturday mornings. Director Tim Burton filmed a remake of the original movie in 2001, although it was not received nearly as well as the previous movies. Many resources exist that look at the entire saga, but specifics on the TV show are featured on Kassidy Rae’s fantastic site detailing the series, its stars, and its production. The series is also available on DVD, and it includes the one unaired episode.
“After a while there was a real sense on the set that this show was not long for this world. There was shock and despair and I think that came with much reluctance because everybody had such high hopes for the series. The feeling on the set was ‘What happened here? This was supposed to have been an automatic three-year run.'”
High hopes are not enough, nor is a clever gimmick. Understand that hard work in story, performance, and promotion are necessary, or else shows end too quickly. In the case of Planet of the Apes, it was like the ancient humans of their storyline: Through lack of understanding (and lack of better storytelling), they ended up bringing on their own demise. Once again, they did it to themselves.
13 aired episodes — one unaired (Many of the aired episodes were later syndicated as TV-movies, splicing two episodes together into one presentation. Roddy McDowall donned the ape makeup one last time to film linking footage and opening/closing material that was added to these episodes.)
First aired episode: September 13, 1974 (Yes, Friday the 13th… an ill omen, to be sure)
Last aired episode: December 20, 1974
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Definitely. Of course it did. This was a perfect show for the network thinking in that time slot. Most of the leads aren’t human!
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.