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“…you got these different stories, these quirky little stories, these fun stories.  They didn’t have to be an ‘event’.  They just had to be entertaining, fun, good, scary, dramatic, whatever… And we made ’em fast, and we made ’em cheap, and it was a great period of time.”
–Dan Curtis, producer of Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker, and Trilogy of Terror

Everything has to start somewhere.  In television these days, that means producers developing scripts for possible series, lengthy casting searches and production schedules, endless notes from the network (who is paying for everything, so they get a significant say), and HOPEFULLY the making of a pilot that can cost multi-millions of dollars.  All of this is on the longshot chance that a series deal will happen… so producers can find out if they can get MORE money to spend on a show that might get canceled in a month.

original movies for television

It’s a crapshoot, except Las Vegas gives better odds.  But it’s the system that’s developed through the years, for better or worse.  Of course, back in the late ’60s and through much of the ’70s, there really was a better way.  The concept of a “TV-Movie of the Week” provided both exciting fare and the possibility of a “back-door” pilot that could still see the light of day even if it didn’t lead to a full series.

NBC and Universal first came up with the idea of movies made directly for the television market in the late ’60s.  They crunched the numbers and figured out that they could make a 90-minute film (with commercials) for the same cost as what some movie studios were charging for the rights to air their previously released blockbusters.  A win-win for both Universal and the network, as it kept production cameras rolling on new projects that had guaranteed return; and saved NBC money in the long run, giving the network new, original programming every week with stars and directors that wouldn’t necessarily agree to be tied down to longer series contracts.

Robert Stack, Gene Barry, and Tony Franciosa from "The Name of the Game"

It also gave NBC a showcase for potential new series involving those that were looking into longer term projects, and a way to determine audience reaction to possible new shows.  The TV-movie Fear is the Name of the Game was the first of these to move from TV-movie pilot to series format, becoming The Name of the Game in 1968.  This also helped develop the relationship of NBC and Universal so much that Universal became the largest provider of programming to the network at one time, and (many years later) they actually joined forces and became one company.

And they weren’t even the best at this.

Cut to 1969.  The ABC network had long been seen as the brash young upstart in television circles, with a few decent series here and there but no real strength or consistency in presenting dramatic series.  Their previous successes had been in the comedic realm, with things like Batman and Room 222.  Looking for a way to become stronger and better recognized as a network, they began airing the ABC Movie of the Week.  Although they had previously been airing feature films as part of their ABC Sunday Night Movie, the Movie of the Week on Tuesday evenings was designed primarily for just the type of low-budget action and suspense movies that could possibly take ABC from being an afterthought in dramatic TV circles to a true player without breaking the bank.

“Back in the seventies, when the first television movies started to be made, you know they were ninety minutes, most of them in the beginning.  The Night Stalker was a ninety-minute picture.  We shot it for $450,000 in 12 days, give you some idea of how what happened in those days.  But it was fun, because the way you made a television movie in those days, the way you got one sold, totally different from today.  Today, it has to be ‘meaningful’, it has to be ‘socially significant’, it has to be ‘filled with stars’, it has to have… you name it.  C’mon, I get sick of the whole game, and everybody plays that game today.  To try to sell a television movie today is the most impossible thing in the world.”
–Dan Curtis

To give you a comparison, the current series Mad Men, on a cable budget, costs close to $3 MILLION dollars for EACH 47-minute episode (sans commercials), and they have standing sets they use repeatedly each week.  These TV-Movies had to either make everything from scratch or shoot on location (or both), so you had to find ways to save money.  This began what I call “the Die Hard system”.

Now, the theatrical film Die Hard wasn’t made until 1988, but it’s the best short-hand way to talk about what some of these films had to do in order to be both successful and profitable.  In a nutshell, the original Die Hard is about one man in a building, trying to stop another man in the building.  So, for the vast majority of the movie, the sets and location consist of nothing but interiors of that ONE building.  TV producers love this sort of thing, because the fewer sets they have to build and the fewer locations they have to move the production company to, the less money they must spend.

Nice little puppy?

Some of the TV-movies were almost archetypes of this style.  Trapped, starring James Brolin, featured a man who had been mugged in the bathroom of a department store… and when he woke up from the attack, his nightmares had just started.  The overnight security was a set of angry Dobermans, and there was no one else in the building.  The movie was all about how he was going to survive against these dogs until morning.  One location (the store) for all the action, no costs to actually build sets, one primary actor for the majority of the picture, and three dogs… no cast of thousands, no special effects, just drama and suspense on a budget.

Short Walk to Daylight was about a group of people in a subway tunnel who are cut off from help due to an earthquake, and their efforts to escape their fate.  It was a combination of disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure on a limited budget and, again, one large set.  Just move the fake rocks and concrete around, and you’ve got a new section of tunnel to get through!  And if you think this sort of thing wasn’t both successful and memorable, check out the theatrical release of Daylight from 1996 starring Sylvester Stallone.  Similar plot, bigger budget, and honestly probably less successful because it depended on that budget for action sequences and special effects instead of telling a good story… which was all the TV-movies really had–storytelling.  And audiences ate it up.

The FIRST Original Wonder Woman

The success of the concept (both in terms of profit and viewership) encouraged ABC to extend their made-for-TV movie night to twice a week.  The original Tuesday night showcase gained a sister slot on Saturday for a time, and then the Saturday movies were moved to Wednesday (the better to be promoted on the Tuesday night entry, and to run the occasional two-parter).  The network even started a production arm, ABC Circle Films, to produce a percentage of these features “in-house”.

ABC also used these weekly slots to air pilot episodes for potential new series.  Numerous successful shows got their start as movie-of-the-week entries.  The list includes Marcus Welby, M.D., Alias Smith and Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Starsky and Hutch.  TWO pilots for Wonder Woman also aired, but the first one starred actress Cathy Lee Crosby, while Lynda Carter replaced her in the second… who ever heard of a short blonde Wonder Woman?  Rival networks even adapted movies for their own series, as the mystery Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate became the blueprint for NBC’s series The Snoop Sisters a few years later.

Producers found another way to make an extra buck off these relatively inexpensive films, as many were released as theatrical films overseas.  Thriller movies and broad, almost slapstick comedies (such as Wake Me When the War is Over with Ken Berry and Zsa Zsa Gabor) made reasonable money “across the pond”, as the market for “budget” pictures had dried up in America… especially when you could watch a new movie (or two) every week on television!

It was also a place for younger, not-yet-tested craftsmen and women to hone their talents without risking major movie finances.  One of the biggest early successes was the 1971 TV-Movie Duel, an unusual picture starring Dennis Weaver as a man who absent-mindedly cuts off a semi-truck driver along the highway… and spends the next 90 television minutes in terror as the unseen truck driver and his menacing rig stalk him on the roads, leading to a suspenseful and dramatic finish.  This was the first film directed by a very young Steven Spielberg, already showing flashes of brilliance in taking a film that has long stretches with absolutely no dialogue and still keeping audiences on the edge of their seats.

More heartfelt emotional stories also found a place here, with movies like 1971’s Brian’s Song.  It told the real-life story of Chicago Bears football players Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, and dramatized their friendship at a time when race relations were seldom discussed on television (and if they were, it was usually about the negative and not the positive).  Piccolo was white and Sayers was black, and in their story it didn’t matter… what was important was Piccolo’s struggle with cancer and his friendship with Sayers.  The movie was not only hugely successful, but it helped become a turning point on television, starting a better representation and portrayal of minority characters and human relationships on the small screen.  And although that particular journey isn’t anywhere near done, at least the first steps were taken.

More steps advanced with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which actress Cicely Tyson gave a bravura performance portraying the 100-year life of a woman who had seen the sociological change of the African-American experience over her lifetime, and the various forms of persecution and grudging acceptance along the way.  Tyson won an Emmy for her 1974 performance, and the TV-Movie as a genre was now seen as just as relevant and vital as any serious drama series.

Another groundbreaking film was That Certain Summer, which starred Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen as a homosexual couple struggling with how to tell loved ones about their relationship.  It was 1972, and the first time the subject had been addressed sympathetically on television.  The movie was nominated for seven Emmy awards.

For a series of movies that had originally been designed as “fast and cheap” productions, the genre of the TV-movie had become much more prestigious… and that may have ultimately led to its downfall.  Many fewer TV-movies are made today, and the idea of the 90-minute television presentation is almost unheard of.  As Dan Curtis said, the small number of productions that do see the light of day tend to be those which can be promoted as “events” instead of just “regular television”, and many of the movies that had been made back in the heyday of this style wouldn’t stand a chance of being produced in the current environment.  Even the idea of the TV-movie being a showcase for potential pilots has gone by the wayside, with pilots for series these days either costing incredible amounts of money (the two-part pilot for Lost is reported to have cost over $10 million itself), or with shows only budgeted to shoot a “pilot reel” instead of a full episode, with the idea that the film would be “fleshed out” if the concept was bought as a series (Castle, for example, was sold this way).

As a result, most pilots for shows that don’t make it to series runs are never seen by the public at large, ironically meaning that the very viewers that networks are wanting to impress never get to see all the possibilities available.  And yet, some of those original TV-movies were so good that talk of remakes continues today.  Trilogy of Terror II was released theatrically in 1996, as the original movie had become a cult hit (and currently available on DVD).  A remake of Brian’s Song was produced in 2003, and a reboot of The Night Stalker series aired in 2005.

“These things hold up.  They hold up, they’re just as good today as they were then.  Absolutely just as good… because of the storytelling.”
–Dan Curtis

There’s a legacy of popular shows that first aired in this form.  Almost 20 series got their start as ABC movies, plus more than a few series on other networks like The Waltons on CBS and Ellery Queen on NBC began in similar fashion.  (A previous article on Ellery Queen is here.)  Television history simply wouldn’t be the same without this particular style, one that has vanished on networks today.  It’s a shame, though.  There’s a place for standalone storytelling, as well as trial balloons for potential new series… it’s too bad that there’s no place to see them like this anymore.

Next week, I’ll cover one of the shows that got its start on the ABC Movie of the Week… until then, I’ll just leave you in suspense, the way some of those great TV-movies did.  See you then!

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Time for another piece on a topic rather than a specific show.  This week, an almost lost style of presentation that gave birth to many of the hits (and misses) of television series history.  They became so popular an Emmy category was created for them, and yet today they’ve become rarities on network television.  Five quotes:

“And we made ’em fast, and we made ’em cheap, and it was a great period of time.”

The overnight security was a set of Dobermans, and there was no one else in the building.

…who ever heard of a short blonde Wonder Woman?

…starting a better representation and portrayal of minority characters and human relationships on the small screen.

“They hold up, they’re just as good today as they were then.”

Give me a little extra time, and I’ll take you back to an amazing variety of drama, mystery, and comedy under one umbrella, and even a potential series or twenty along the way.  Settle down with a bowl of popcorn and this week’s Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“When I was a child, my parents knew I wasn’t going to grow up, so they decided I should grow first.  They put me out to sea to work as a cabin boy.  But I missed my childhood.  It’s during childhood you learn the important things in life — the wonders of life should never be missed or hated.”
–Simon McKay, also known as The Wizard

David Rappaport as Simon McKay, The Wizard

There’s a certain wonder and innocence that can be lost as we grow up.  Children know it, but some adults forget it far too easily.  It’s that magic that comes with being able to see the world with new eyes every day, to be amazed at what far too many people take for granted… and to remember that, in the best kind of world, there’s no place for cynicism when there’s a much better way.  Sometimes we just need reminding of those types of things.  That’s the job of The Wizard.

A breath of fresh air, The Wizard aired on CBS in the Fall of 1986 and featured David Rappaport as Simon McKay, possibly one of the most unique heroes of any prime-time series.  While he wasn’t possessed of any otherworldly magic spells or anything like that, he was possessed of the most magical gifts of all–a tremendous heart, an inquisitive mind, and an inventive imagination.

Simon had been one of the chief scientific minds for a US government spy agency and an expert on weapons and other systems, but dropped completely out of sight for half a decade… only to resurface as a toy maker, creating amazing scientific gadgets and granting wishes to children.  The agency occasionally calls on Simon for help, but Simon will only cooperate on his own terms, as there are some things he just won’t do.  His focus is now on helping people with his creations and his intellect, not on the covert and competitive nature of countries and spies.  If he can do what he wants and, at the same time, help on an occasional mission, everyone’s happy.  Well, almost everyone….

“When the best intelligence agencies in the world can’t find someone… he’s vanished.  But Simon McKay turned up.  He won’t say where he was, and at the moment that doesn’t matter.  I don’t care if he is one of Santa’s elves… he’s also the inventive genius of our time.  So you make damn sure you don’t let him fall in the wrong hands.”
–instructions to Alex Jaeger on his new role as Simon McKay’s bodyguard

Simon and Alex

Some want Simon’s creative mind for nefarious purposes, and that’s where Alex Jaeger (Douglas Barr) comes in.  He’s assigned by the agency to protect McKay and his genius from those forces which might try to use him against others.  Alex feels (at first) like this is some kind of punishment.  He’s more of a confrontational type, the brawn to Simon’s brains.  They develop an alliance and a friendship over time, and Alex starts to learn from Simon what the wonder of life is all about.

“Why sail away in search of adventure… when it lives right here?”
–Tillie Russell

Tillie Russell, Simon's friend and helper

Simon is also aided by Tillie Russell (Fran Ryan), his housekeeper and long-time friend.  Spending her life on the sea, Tillie knew Simon when he was a youthful cabin boy, and the two are reunited after Tillie runs into trouble.  When she suspects the new owner of her ship is involved in some illegal and dangerous smuggling, Simon and Alex come to save the day.  Tillie then decides to jump ship and join her old friend Simon and her new one Alex, leaving the seas to watch over both of them like a mother-hen.  Of course, that doesn’t stop them all from finding trouble… or from trouble finding them.

Between helping those in need with Simon’s amazing inventions or occasionally being called on to help the government in some unique way, the lives of Simon, Alex, and Tillie were never boring.  While the adventures of the trio may have taken them from the lost city of El Dorado in South America to the streets of Hong Kong, many of the most surprising things happened in Simon’s own workshop.  He built radio helicopters than were controlled with just a person’s thoughts, and magnetic yo-yo’s that could do tricks without strings attached.  His gadgets could pull apart steel bars (allowing them to escape imprisonment by the bad guys) and replace live animals with robotic dogs as seeing-eye companions for the blind.  Surprisingly, although this show sounds a bit like a fantasy, it definitely was not.

“The company that builds some of these models also makes robotics for handicapped people.  We’re doing fiction and here’s fact just beyond what we’re doing.”
–David Rappaport

Did the show seem fantastical?  Perhaps at times.  But most everything was based on real science with a dash of added wonder, giving The Wizard an imaginative feel.  The show tried very hard to straddle that line between “over-the-top” and “heightened reality”, making a unique viewing experience for all.  Perhaps the most unique feature was the star of The Wizard, David Rappaport.

“You’re getting in over your head, Simon.”
“Alex, most things in life are over my head.”
–Alex and Simon as they plan another escapade

Rappaport stood only 3-feet 11-inches tall, hardly the typical television hero.  The title role of The Wizard was specifically created for him after producer Michael Berk had seen his performance in the movie Time Bandits.  (Rappaport’s musical ability was incorporated into the series, which showed McKay’s use of playing the drums as a means of focusing his thinking.)  Rappaport was also given significant creative input into the series, making certain his character was seen as more than just a curiosity.  Simon McKay was a role model, someone who could be looked up to no matter what the height of the people involved.

searching for the best

Rappaport believed strongly that the world could be a much more positive place, and that television and the media had a responsibility to portray those kinds of adventures.  Simon McKay was shown as a force for good, but not through muscular strength or physical prowess.  His power was through his mind and imagination, and through his thirst for creativity and adventure.  The goal was never a character’s desire to punish those who did wrong, although that was sometimes necessary.  The goal was to create in each and every person the sense of wonder available in all of us, to encourage a way of looking at the world without cynicism and negativity.  This world-view of Simon McKay is what made The Wizard a very special and amazing show, one that is well-remembered twenty-five years later.

“Anyone can be a fool five minutes in a day.  Wisdom comes from knowing when not to exceed the limit.”
–Simon McKay

Television isn’t usually like this, and audiences in general weren’t the most sympathetic.  Selling the show was difficult, because it just wasn’t the typical show, and therefore not the most popular either.  It appealed (like most shows) to those viewers who were already somewhat disposed to the ideas presented, and while the fan following it developed was very devoted, The Wizard also had the misfortune to be initially scheduled as part of a weak CBS Tuesday line-up against three of the top fifteen shows on television (Who’s the Boss?, Growing Pains, and Matlock).  With a new time-slot, the show might have had a chance to survive… except the time it was ultimately moved to turned out to be Thursdays against the top two shows on television (The Cosby Show and Family Ties).  All the hopes, dreams, and good ideas in the world weren’t going to gather large enough audiences quickly enough….

British-born Rappaport came from England, which is half a world away from Hollywood both in terms of geography and point-of-view.  His thoughts on television at the time:

“The attitude in England is different.  We don’t have ratings.  We do have surveys but not so dogmatic as over here.  It’s not a do-or-die thing.  Too much emphasis on the ratings encourages the worst sort of shows.  So much television is the United States is wasted.  You could do so many good things.  Television spent years celebrating drugs, now they suddenly realize they have to stop it.  It must be used to do what is right.”

Television could learn something from David Rappaport….

The Wizard is thinking

The Wizard lasted 19 episodes and only one season from September to March.  While CBS tried to show some faith in the series by airing it relatively consistently, the combined existence of extremely heavy competition and a rather unconventional premise led to it ending that Spring.  But the one thing a network could never end is the spirit of adventure, imagination, and curiosity developed together by Simon, Alex, Tillie, and every single viewer of the show.  That’s always a part of each and every one of us.  Simon said it best:

“Your mind is much stronger than you can imagine.  All you have to do is set it free….”
–Simon McKay, The Wizard

DAVID RAPPAPORT (Simon McKay) was a tremendous actor both here in the US and in his native England.  His passion for performing and touching others’ lives shone in movies like Time Bandits, The Goodies, and The Bride (and he was offered the role of R2D2 in Star Wars but turned it down only because he didn’t want to act in the robot costume).  Television roles included appearances on L.A. Law (in a recurring role), Mr. Belvedere, and Hooperman.  He also has a writing credit for one episode of The Wizard (as well as contributing to other episodes), and the character of Simon McKay was said to be very close to David’s own personality.  He was musically adept at drums, harmonica, accordion, piano, and trumpet, and loved to share his gifts with all.  He left us in 1990, a large talent that is sorely missed.

DOUGLAS BARR (Alex Jaeger) is best known as Lee Majors’ television sidekick for five seasons on The Fall Guy, as well as a recurring part on Designing Women.  He also contributed a story for an episode of The Wizard (everyone on this show really cared about it) and has focused on directorial efforts over the last decade or more, earning a Director’s Guild nomination for his 2010 NBC tv-movie Secrets of the Mountain.

FRAN RYAN (Tillie Russell) was a frequent guest actress on many TV comedies dating all the way back to the mid-’60’s.  She appeared on episodes of The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies, and had a recurring role on Green Acres as “mom” to Arnold Ziffel, the pig that was treated like a person!  Numerous light dramatic shows followed in the ’70’s, including Columbo, Starsky and Hutch, and Charlie’s Angels.  She continued performing onscreen until the age of 75, and passed away in 2000.

All for one, and one for all

While The Wizard has yet to be released on DVD (a travesty if there ever was one), there is an active campaign to do so.  Details of that, plus one of the very best sites out there concerning a long-forgotten series, can be found at the official fansite for The Wizard.  It also includes items from Executive Producer Michael Berk and a video about the work towards a DVD release from Rappaport’s good friend, British actor Nabil Shaban.  I recommend it highly, and I support their efforts.  You can spend hours on that one site alone, discovering both The Wizard and the career of David Rappaport, and I encourage all to do so.

“But I think the real secret of this show is the heart.  The real human values.  The hero is powerful but he’s also vulnerable.  The message of the show is that you can overcome things through non-violence.  My size works on many levels.”
–David Rappaport

Cynicism is so much a part of television (and many people on either side of the screen) they don’t even realize it at times.  Our own lives, as well as the lives of characters on far too many shows. are led with a jaundiced eye and suspicion of others.  Fortunately, every once in a while a show like The Wizard and a character like Simon McKay comes along to remind us all of a better way.  Through Simon, we can see the wonder, the surprise, the simple joy that life can bring on a daily basis if we just set aside that cynical mindset and embrace a better point of view.  We are all graced with the ability to imagine, to think, to become better, if we only remember to use that ability instead of listening to the overly competitive, critical world.  That’s what The Wizard himself said he did for anyone who would hear:

“What I do is far more important than any covert operation.”

“All right, Simon.  What is it that you do?”

“I keep magic alive….”

Something we all can do….

(A personal aside:  The Wizard was chosen specifically for one of the most special people in my life, whose birthday is this week.  He turned seven during the airing of this show, the perfect age to discover and encourage his imagination.  I’m so very glad he discovered both the show and his own gifts, and he continues to use that imagination with joy and wonder each and every day.  My life would be far less without those things in it.  Please follow his (and Simon’s) example and do the same.)

Vital Stats

19 aired episodes — none unaired
CBS Network
First aired episode:  September 9, 1986
Last aired episode:  March 12, 1987
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  The hour is right, the days are wrong.  The Wizard premiered on Tuesdays, but was shifted to Thursdays in December of 1986.  Airing in the 8/7 Central slot worked, because this was one of the best family shows ever.  Too bad not all the parents got it!

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

This week, a show full of wonder and imagination, and an article written especially for someone I know who embodies those ideals very well.  A unique show, a unique star, and a message I wish was much more plentiful on television.  Five quotes:

“It’s during childhood you learn the important things in life — the wonders of life should never be missed or hated.”

…he was possessed of the most magical gifts of all–a tremendous heart, an inquisitive mind, and an inventive imagination.

“Why sail away in search of adventure… when it lives right here?”

Surprisingly, although this show sounds a bit like a fantasy, it definitely was not.

“Anyone can be a fool for five minutes in a day.  Wisdom comes from knowing when not to exceed the limit.”

Watching this one, I agree very much with the hero.  The show, like life, is all about keeping the magic alive.  See you Friday 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

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