If you could go back through time and change everything, so it all turns out special instead of ordinary, would you do it? Many of us would. It would be more than tempting. But when you meet someone who seemed to be living that charmed existence, then you start to suspect that maybe there’s some time travel involved, some science fiction way of making all those moments part of one life. The surprising thing is, yes, there’s both time travel AND science fiction, but the man is very real.
“Of all the television shows I produced The Time Tunnel was my personal favorite.”
Let’s go all the way back to 1966. ABC is looking for a show that can be made cheaply, and feature a couple of good-looking guys they can market to the younger crowd. They turn to Irwin Allen, creator of shows like Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Land of the Giants. The show they get is called The Time Tunnel.
Originally set slightly in the “future” of 1968, The Time Tunnel is, obviously, a time-travel show. The cheap part is the extensive use of the Universal film library (a tactic also used in fellow time-travel series Voyagers! years later). The first of the good-looking guys is Dr. Anthony Newman (James Darren), a young and brilliant scientist obsessed with the creation of the Tunnel, a device to travel either forward or backward in time. Setting the stage for future time-travel shows, Tony is forced to prematurely test his machine or lose government funding (a premise echoed on Quantum Leap, among others). He uses the equipment to prove his theories… but of course, nothing ever goes as it should.
His friend and fellow researcher Dr. Douglas Phillips (Robert Colbert) tries to rescue Tony by leaping into the tunnel after him, ending up in the same time era as Tony… on the Titanic, just before the iceberg strikes. They try desperately to warn the Captain of the impending danger, but their words go mostly unheeded. As the disaster happens, they finally get through to those in charge… and their efforts allow the sparing of those few who survived, just as the history books said. They had a part to play, history just didn’t tell us they were there.
“The control of time is potentially the most valuable treasure that man will ever find.”
–Dr. Douglas Phillips
As the ship sinks, they are “saved” by those back at the Time Tunnel complex, but the scientists at the base cannot yet control where our heroes might end up… and they can’t be sure Tony and Doug will ever be able to get back home. Our heroes get stuck (of course), traveling from one era to another. They visit everything from Biblical times, facing the fall of the Walls of Jericho, to ending up on a spacecraft mission to Mars. And yes, they even do the standard Pearl Harbor story from WWII. But there are plenty of other eras to explore, and plenty of other adventures waiting, past and future.
The team from home base (known as Project Tic-Toc) is trying to get the scientists back, but thanks to the Tunnel, they have their own emergencies to face. Lt. General Heywood Kirk (Whit Bissell) is in charge, with assistance from Dr. Ann McGregor (Lee Meriwether) and Dr. Raymond Swain (John Zaremba). They end up fighting off alien invaders, foreign spies, and even a renegade pirate captain brought back through the Tunnel. Although they seem to have sporadic success in bringing others to the base, they never seem to be able to help Tony and Doug get back where they belong.
Of course, that little problem didn’t stop the series from ending too soon. A thirty episode first (and only) season later, and The Time Tunnel journeys were no more on network television screens. ABC had offered to renew the series, but wanted the budget cut by a third, and Irwin Allen (realizing how much he was already using stock footage and reusing items from his other series) said no. The reruns were syndicated, and stations ran The Time Tunnel along with some of Allen’s other shows (Lost in Space, Land of the Giants) in package deals. Although it was only made for one year, The Time Tunnel showcased many different eras. And it wasn’t the only one to cover a lot of ground….
“I think Ricky Nelson said it best in ‘Garden Party': ‘You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.’ If you’re content with doing what you’re doing, stick with it. If not, find the road that takes you there.”
Born James William Ercolani, The Time Tunnel was the first television starring vehicle for actor James Darren. Although he was a rather young actor, it was hardly his first role. He had been noticed onscreen as teen love interest Moondoggie, surfer and boyfriend of the young Gidget in the popular movie series. A versatile performer, he was a singer with Las Vegas connections to Sinatra, Martin, Bishop, and the rest of the legendary Rat Pack entertainers.
Initially a musician, Darren had a #3 pop hit (and gold record) with the song Goodbye Cruel World. His Gidget movies were really an offshoot of that musical success (considering he couldn’t surf, and could barely swim), but he proved surprisingly adept in front of a camera as well as a live audience. Performing in Vegas and headlining a major network television show would be significant career highlights for most actors, but in Darren’s case, he was barely beginning.
He was hired on The Time Tunnel as an obvious heart-throb for younger viewers, and his likeness showed up in numerous “teen” magazines of the time. Tiger Beat, Teen Screen, and many others of the day were filled with pictures and (phony) articles about his life and pastimes. Although these were primarily publicity outlets used by movie and TV to promote various projects, achieving success at the time meant making their pages, and Darren was definitely a success already. ABC believed in his ability to attract viewers, and although The Time Tunnel only ran one season, it was more due to the style of the show (and its sometimes over-the-top plots) than it was the acting of Darren and co-star Cobert.
Throughout the ’70’s Darren toured extensively with Las Vegas friend and comedian Buddy Hackett, with Darren and Hackett bringing a bit of Vegas to the rest of the country. The tour was hugely successful, although it did take Darren out of the spotlight of television and movies for an extended period.
That all changed in the early ’80’s, when Darren was cast as partner to Heather Locklear in William Shatner’s T.J. Hooker police series. Darren’s Officer Jim Corrigan was the most consistent of the cast, usually being the voice of reason to the antics of Shatner’s Hooker and the younger “rookies” the cops were teaching. T.J. Hooker lasted five well-remembered seasons, during which Darren developed a passion for what would become the next stage of his career.
For the rest of the ’80’s, Darren became a force behind the camera. After directing the final episode of T.J. Hooker, Darren was given his first pure directing opportunity by Producer Stephen J. Cannell on The A-Team. Initially specializing in more action-oriented dramas like Hunter, Werewolf (directing almost half the series episodes), and Silk Stalkings, he later used his talents on episodes of Beverly Hills 9210, Melrose Place, and Savannah. As a singer-turned-actor-turned-director, he’d once again found something he was not only good at, but which he enjoyed.
While directing was much of Darren’s career through the ’90’s, a chance meeting with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Producer Ira Stephen Behr led Darren full circle back to his Rat Pack days. Behr was casting a character for his show, and was looking for someone to play a holographic image of a late 1950’s crooner from Las Vegas. While Darren didn’t initially want the part (believing it to be a bit too “on-the-nose”), upon closer inspection he realized he could really have a lot of fun with the portrayal. Darren’s dislike of “reading” for a part took an interesting turn when, at a meeting with Behr and the other producers, he simply “slipped in” lines from the script, as if he was the part in real life. Behr and the others were overjoyed with the “performance” (especially once they were let in on it), and Darren was hired as Vegas headliner Vic Fontaine.
While the part was written for only one episode, Darren’s presentation of Vic was enormously popular with fans, leading to a semi-regular gig and featured roles on numerous episodes. His performance with another DS9 semi-regular, Aron Eisenberg, in It’s Only a Paper Moon is rather amazing, considering it’s primarily a two-hander acting demonstration in a series with nine regulars… almost none of whom are really highlighted in the episode. In Paper Moon, it’s his acting chops which are on display, and Darren comes through wonderfully.
Darren, as Vic, also got to sing in the finale of the series, a good-bye to the cast set to the standard of “Just the Way You Look Tonight”. One of the best sequences of the series, and a fond farewell to those who were a part of it, the song was appropriate to both the end of the show and to Darren’s terrific singing voice.
Since then, Darren has been semi-retired, appearing at various Star Trek conventions (performing Saturday night concerts, of course), and has recorded two CDs of music in his Vic Fontaine-Rat Pack style (including many of the songs from Deep Space Nine). In addition to reissues of some of his earlier albums as CDs, he’s also been the featured guest at many different symphony orchestras with music from his vast career. Some of these have even used Darren singing “Surfin’ Craze”, a song he performed in 1965 on an episode of The Flintstones as Jimmy Darrock, teen idol. (Darren is one of only five real people parodied on the original Flintstones).
JAMES DARREN (Tony Newman) was the feature of this article, so I don’t have to go into any more detail here, except to add that he and his wife are Godparents to Frank Sinatra’s first grandchild, Angela, and that his son Jim Moret has been a featured correspondent on CNN and Inside Edition.
ROBERT COBERT (Doug Phillips) was a common sight in many early TV westerns, and his youthful likeness to James Garner got him a spot as the younger brother Brent in a few episodes of Maverick. Content with being a working actor, Cobert never really wanted stardom, just desired to be a working actor. An original cast member of the soap The Young and the Restless, his last notable role was as David Hasslehoff’s father in Baywatch.
WHIT BISSELL (General Heywood Kirk) is a science fiction fans definition of “character actor”, having been featured in numerous SF films of the ’50’s and ’60’s. He turned Michael Landon into a teen-age werewolf, appeared in the 1960 movie version of The Time Machine, and ran a space station overrun by Tribbles on the original Star Trek. He was seen as various authority figures throughout history in the docu-drama series You Are There, and was the trusted face making sure thousands knew they “were in good hands with Allstate”. He passed away in 1996.
LEE MERIWETHER (Dr. Ann McGregor) won the Miss America pageant in 1955, leading to a hosting gig on The Today Show. As an actress, she’s known for her turn as Catwoman in the 1996 Batman movie (as television Catwoman Julie Newmar was unavailable at the time). For seven seasons she played Betty Jones, daughter and assistant to Buddy Ebsen’s detective character Barnaby Jones. Meriwether also portrayed Lily Munster in the revival series The Munsters Today.
JOHN ZAREMBA (Dr. Raymond Swain) was one of the first television stars, featured in the counter-intelligence series I Led 3 Lives in the early ’50’s. Another “typed” actor, he played many doctors and judges in various shows, including a medical examiner in Perry Mason and a colleague on Ben Casey. He died in 1986, appearing in a role on Dallas earlier that year… again, as a doctor.
The Time Tunnel is available on DVD in a split set, 15 episodes each, plus different and extensive extras on each set. The second set contains as a bonus the attempted 2002 “remake” pilot from Fox, plus the full-length pilot for a similar Irwin Allen series from the ’70’s called The Time Travelers. All thirty episodes of the original are also available on Hulu for streaming. There were a couple of books written based on the series, as well as a children’s board game, and for a one-season series from the late ’60’s with no original comic book basis, The Time Tunnel is very well-remembered. (There was a comic book, but it came after the series and only lasted a few issues.) In another blast from the past, the iconic theme song was created by Johnny Williams, now known as John Williams, the writer of other memorable music for the movies Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones. Truly, The Time Tunnel, and Darren, have both stood the test of time.
“…people look at me and say, ‘You’re the luckiest guy in the world.’ And I just have to say, ‘I know.'”
Darren is really a man of many eras, so it was fitting that he appeared on a series like The Time Tunnel. He got to do a little of everything there, and his lengthy and successful career has been similar. I was fortunate enough to spend a dinner with him and a few friends one evening, and a wonderful, interesting time was had by all. James Darren is a true gentleman, a true talent, and a truly terrific human being (even though most these days know him as a hologram….)
From his days in the Rat Pack to his trips through The Time Tunnel, from his time on the beat of T.J. Hooker through directing, coming full circle to running Vic Fontaine’s holographic Vegas lounge years later on Deep Space Nine, Darren has been not only a class act, but truly timeless. Whether you remember him as Moondoggie or Tony Newman, Jim Corrigan or Vic Fontaine (or even Jimmy Darrock), Darren’s talent and ageless grace have touched many, and I’m grateful to have been one of them.
30 aired episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: September 9, 1966 (the day after the original Star Trek premiered)
Final aired episode: April 7, 1967 (The series was only pre-empted ONCE in thirty episodes!)
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Of course! Another perfect show for the time slot, and one which almost survived it!
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.