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“Nobody had tried to make a funny cartoon on Saturday morning for, I think, almost twenty years.  What was the last one, probably George of the Jungle?  Jay Ward was the last guy who actually tried telling jokes on a kid’s cartoon.  And then nothing…”
–Writer Jim Reardon

Jim Reardon should know.  He became a writer/producer on The Simpsons for 14 years, a show which has become the longest running entertainment program on American television, and later was nominated for an Oscar as co-writer for the Pixar movie WALL-E.  But a quarter of a century ago, just before The Simpsons started out as short segments on The Tracey Ullman Show, Reardon had recently graduated from California Institute of the Arts animation classes.  He and a bunch of other fresh-faced newbies in the television world were about to turn animation on its ear, led by one old radical and one almost forgotten cartoon hero.  The radical was Ralph Bakshi, and the show they produced together was Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures.

Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (with new arch-nemesis, The Cow)

On Saturday mornings in 1987, CBS aired a re-imagining of Mighty Mouse, an old Terrytoons character from the late 1940’s who’d become a popular television feature in the ’50’s and early ’60’s.  A young artist named Ralph Bakshi had worked on many of those old Terrytoon productions, before becoming an animation upstart with animated movies like Wizards, The Lord of the Rings, and Fritz the Cat (which was the first animated movie to earn an “adults only” X-rating).  While many were surprised that Bakshi and his animation studio were involved in producing a show for Saturday morning television aimed at youngsters, Bakshi believed that animation was for everyone, and that making purely “educational” programming meant making “boring” programming.

After meetings with ABC and NBC, and pitching original ideas for animated programs with no success, he went to CBS with an idea for a revamped version of Mighty Mouse, made for both kids and adults, and the network gave him a modest budget with the hope that something new might be conceived.

They had no idea what was coming.

“What do you remember about (the original) Mighty Mouse?  ‘Here I come to save the day’ and he flies in.  That’s all they remember.  So we had a lot of leeway to play in.”
–Jim Reardon

Night of the bat-bat, a parody of Batman comics and movies

While the original theme song of “Here I Come to Save the Day” is something of a cultural memory, the character of Mighty Mouse is basically a ripoff of Superman, just done as a mouse.  He battled cats (who were naturally evil from a mouse point of view) and a few deranged rodents along the way.  But Bakshi and company decided that Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures was simply the vehicle they were going to use to tell entertaining and occasionally cutting social satire, using the character as a framework to host their own stories.  Their sense of parody and desire to break the (then) conventional mode of Saturday morning cartoons led to a tremendous amount of creativity.

Characters would break the “fourth wall”, speaking directly to the camera (and the audience at home).  Backgrounds were stylized, and heroes and villains were designed as way-over-the-top, exactly as satire demanded.  Episodes spoofed everything from other staid Saturday morning shows to libertarian novelist Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (a book which, not surprisingly, very few usual Saturday morning viewers were familiar with).  Bakshi’s edict was not to toe the line, but for the animators to have fun, and to make something THEY would enjoy, with no thought given to network desires or supposed audience marketing reports.  So that’s what they did.

“I don’t think you could afford to put all the names in the same room now that came out of that first season.  Ralph basically was too cheap to hire real television writers.  He didn’t want to pay them, and so….  But to give him credit, he also felt he was just going to get sad, tired, same old television Saturday morning thinking.  And he thought ‘I want fresh blood, and I also can get it cheap if I go to students coming right out of school’ and he was right!”
–Writer Andrew Stanton

This started a revolution in animated television, and many of those young men and women involved in The New Adventures went on to become involved in some of the most successful shows and movies in animation history.  Working on Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures were people like Jim Reardon and Andrew Stanton, who went on to write and animate for Pixar Studios and their productions of Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and WALL-E.

Pixar Studio's Monsters, Inc., brought to you by those involved in The New Adventures

A developing producer for Bakshi Studios was John Kricfalusi, who went on to create The Ren and Stimpy Show, and was involved in many other shows for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.  And character designer Bruce Timm has been instrumental in the looks of everything from Tiny Toon Adventures to the numerous award-winning updates of DC comic properties on television, like Batman:  The Animated Adventures and Justice League.  Modern television animation would not be remotely the same without the talented people Ralph Bakshi first gathered together to work on Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures, and television changed significantly because of them.

“I let the guys perform.  And you know what?  They perform “above”….  They can’t believe that they’re free, and they perform well.  That’s the major Bakshi secret.  You hire talented guys, and tell ’em not what to do.  A lot of studios hire talented guys and tell them how to do it.  It’s mindless.  It boggles the imagination.  It’s like hiring Norman Rockwell and telling him how to draw!”
–Ralph Bakshi

This group of people (and there are more, just not space here to mention them all) led a revolution in animation, both on television and later in motion pictures.  They may have been young, but they had found a place where they could create with few boundaries, and the developed skills that changed animation.  Many of the leadership of Pixar Studios first worked together on The New Adventures, and their new and unusual styles became something others in the medium couldn’t wait to try.  Within the next year television saw radical departures from the norm of animation like Bettlejuice, and the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit in theatres, combining live action and cartoons. Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures was a critical success (both in and out of the industry), and the series was on the verge of becoming a popular one as well.

Of course, with change always comes a bit of controversy.  And when a Saturday morning show is being led by someone who once notoriously released an X-rated picture, animated or not, then obviously there’s a target that someone else is going to find a reason to shoot at, worthy or not.  Enter the Reverend Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association.

Reverend Donald Wildmon

Started one evening in the mid-’70’s because Reverend Wildmon decided that nothing on television could be watched by families with young children, the American Family Association led boycotts against select shows (in addition to books and magazines) which they believed promoted ideas that children should be protected against.  These shows included popular (yet controversial) shows like All in the Family (and its portrayal of race relations through Archie Bunker) and Three’s Company (which engaged in sexual innuendo and had a lead character who “pretended” to be gay).  Rev. Wildmon and the AFA also protested against radio shock DJ Howard Stern and Madonna’s music video for the song “Like a Virgin”.  And yet, it is hard to understand the firestorm of allegations started by this organization over a particular cartoon.  Rev. Wildmon and the AFA singled out one scene in a segment of Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures entitled The Littlest Tramp, saying it promoted drug use.  John Kricfalusi recaps the story from there:

“The flower-sniffing controversy.  I don’t even know why this was a controversy.  If you actually watch the story and see the context, there’s a little flower girl, (writer) Tom Minton’s “littlest tramp”, and she stands on the street corner with flowers, trying to sell them to people.  There’s this mean guy based on Kirk Douglas, and at one point he crushes her flower.  Mighty Mouse shows up just afterwards, and because he’s nice to her, she gives him the only thing she has, and it’s this crushed flower, and he puts it in his pocket.  And later, Mighty Mouse thinks back to the flower girl, and says, ‘You know, I knew somebody like that.’ and smells it, like you would smell a flower.  And it goes up his nose.”

One of Rev. Wildmon’s followers down in Mississippi saw the segment, brought it to his attention, and soon there were cries for a boycott and loud demands that CBS fire “that pornographer” Bakshi (even though Fritz the Cat got an X-rating for language and not nudity).  OBVIOUSLY, they were promoting the sniffing of cocaine to children!!!

The "flower-sniffing" sequence

Well, of course they weren’t. The only thing obvious about the previous sentence was the sarcasm of the capital letters.   Even a show as occasionally subversive and radical as The New Adventures wasn’t trying to turn America’s youth into drug-crazed zombies, and Mighty Mouse himself had no effects from the incident other than memories of his association with the girl (which was the whole point).  Still, thanks to the shrill rallying cry of Rev. Wildmon and the AFA (who claimed large numbers, but never proved them), there were news stories in major newspapers, and even a mention in Time magazine.  But ultimately the noise brought MORE attention to the series, not less, and the entire escapade shows how useless and idiotic an out-of-context controversy can be, and how a “tempest in a teapot” can be made out of something innocent.

“And the weird thing is,  there’s plenty of stuff in the cartoon that you COULD go after.  There’s all kinds of stuff that they could have jumped all over.  Instead, they just made something up.”
–John Kricfalusi

In this case, the flower-sniffing really was the most innocent thing in the story. Although it’s a parody of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl, the Kirk Douglas-inspired human villain ends up getting spanked over the knee of Mighty Mouse, and ends up repenting and marrying the mouse-girl… just before they both drive off and their limo explodes in an atomic blast, complete with mushroom cloud.  Corporal punishment, inter-species marriage, and even the explosion of a nuclear bomb passed without comment, but don’t you DARE show anyone smelling a crushed flower to remind them of someone else’s kindness!!!

the Mighty Heroes, from 1966

The initial season of Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures ran for 13 half-hour episodes, and a second six episodes followed the next year.  While many of the segments were outright parodies, some barely featured Mighty Mouse at all, while others revived previous Terrytoon characters like Deputy Dawg and nemesis Oil Can Harry.  In one segment, Mighty Mouse must help a group of aged super-powered heroes — collectively known as the Mighty Heroes — as they attempt a comeback (but unbeknownst to them, Mighty Mouse is doing all the work, and they’re just succeeding due to his unseen efforts).  The Mighty Heroes piece was a tribute to Bakshi himself, as he had created a 1960’s Saturday morning show early in his television career featuring those characters in their prime (and is fondly remembered by some of us, including me, who was a faithful watcher as a youth).  Even with the progressive ideas of The New Adventures, there was still room for some nostalgia… especially flavored with satire and snark.

Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures is available on DVD, with a great behind-the-scenes documentary called “Breaking the Mold” (from which many of the quotes in this article were taken).  There is a more detailed account of the “flower-sniffing” controversy on the show’s Wikipedia site, including comments from Bakshi about his strong feelings against drugs in general, and against the misinterpretation of this particular piece of work specifically.  And while Mighty Mouse was briefly resurrected yet again for a commercial in 2001, it was hastily yanked off the air after the destruction of 9/11, which was similar in vague respects to the events on the ad.

“Ralph once said a film or a cartoon is only good if it’s a reaction against something else.  And Mighty Mouse was a reaction against a lot of mediocrity.”
–Tom Minton

The late 1980’s were a time of change, both in the world at large and in the industry of television.  The world was becoming a smaller place, with governments finding their direction after the Cold War had ended, and both uncertainty and promise awaited.  Television was changing both in content and technology, with new, independent stations, and the rise of cable networks by the score allowing for different ideas to be prominent.  Mighty Mouse:  The New Adventures led the way in this department, with young minds and fresh ideas, and although they (by their own admission) made some mistakes, the radical Bakshi and his crew of upstarts re-created an old icon for a new generation.

The same thing was going on everywhere, in every medium, with old ideas being reinvented into new thoughts and new ways of seeing the world.  Television could act as the eyes bringing us that view, and by allowing Jim Reardon, Andrew Stanton, John Kricfalusi, and all the others a voice, they found something all of us can learn from.  You could hear that voice, even now:  “Here I Come, to Save the Day!”  They were a Mighty Mouse (and his mighty creators) that roared, and they continue to do so to this day….

Vital Stats

19 aired episodes — none unaired — available on DVD
CBS Network
First aired episode:  November 22, 1987
Final aired episode:  October 22, 1988
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Hardly.  Although some of the humor that went over kids heads might have been more understandable there, it was still smarter than some of the stuff in prime time.  No wonder it didn’t last.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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“Most writers don’t know how to write for us.  They either think we’re The Waltons or Father Knows Best.”
–Ronny Cox

Especially during the holidays, life can get a little crazy.  Things to do, people to see, errands to run, and coordinating schedules and trying to be everywhere at once just emphasizes our hurried lifestyles these days.  The more commercialized aspects of gift-giving (and gift shopping) remind us of the harried nature of life.  Of course, for many these days, it’s just adding crazy on top of crazy, in a life already going at a breakneck speed.  Sometimes, a person just has to put a stop to it all, and find a place to slow down and discover a simpler way.

Hollywood is no different, except that the pace there is almost always on fast-forward, and holidays add even more stress and complication to life in the fast lane.  And yet, there’s always a desire for many to find a way to return to a simpler existence, to slow down the rat race and find a different path.  Of course, sometimes people are just forced to deal with the craziness, no matter how simple they want their lives to be.  Two different shows dealt with these ideas, each in their own manner.  But they both came to the same conclusion.

The first was the 1974 CBS series Apple’s Way.  From The Waltons creator Earl Hamner, Apple’s Way told the story of George Apple (Ronny Cox), the father of a family of six, who moved his brood from the hectic pace of Los Angeles back to Appleton, Iowa, the small town he grew up in.  Founded by his ancestors (hence the Appleton moniker), it promised a much more relaxed way of life for the architect and his family… if only they could get used to it.

George’s wife Barbara reluctantly went along with this move, although she wasn’t initially sold on the whole idea of uprooting her family and moving to what they considered “the middle of nowhere”.  But she loved George, and knew the surroundings would likely be good for the kids (whether they believed it or not).  So the family packed up and went to live in a converted old grist mill, complete with waterwheel and “old mill pond”  (because, of course, that’s Hollywood’s idea of “small town”, even in the ’70’s).

While George and Barbara got used to the more rustic surroundings, the kids had their own problems.  Accustomed to a life where friends are just around the corner and things to do are more plentiful, the adjustment to rural Iowa from big-city Los Angeles was more than a bit of culture shock.  But slowly, older teen Paul (Vincent Van Patten), sister Cathy (Patti Cohoon), and youngsters Steven (Eric Olson) and Patricia (Frannie Michel for the first thirteen episodes, Kristie McNichol thereafter) learned to love their new existence.  Dealing with their enthusiastic father, however, was still a problem.

“Earl calls him ‘a slightly berserk good Samaritan.’  He can’t help getting into other people’s problems, even when he’s not wanted.”
–Ronny Cox

George was a “true believer”, and had faith in numerous people and causes.  This obstinate refusal to back down over any situation rubbed some the wrong way, and made the family’s assimilation into the community a sometimes prickly proposition.  Whether he was standing up for a losing basketball coach or defending an ancient tree’s existence, his activism in various causes occasionally embarrassed his family, but his devotion usually was worthwhile.

Created by Earl Hamner, the man behind the successful CBS series The Waltons, Apple’s Way was hoped by CBS to be a more modern-day adaptation of the same family-style drama, although the first season of thirteen episodes played a bit more like a fish-out-of-water comedy.  Major retooling was done before its second season, with the actress playing the youngest girl replaced by Kristie McNichol (as she spelled it then).  Of course, McNichol later went on to play in a different modern-day drama, Family, for many years.

The grist mill set was built on the old Columbia back lot, and was later retooled into the house seen in numerous episodes of Fantasy Island.  Ultimately, the facade was torn down, and ironically it was replaced by the Walton homestead, moved to its new location when its previous site was sold off by the studio.  But the simplicity remained, even if just as a memory.

The problem portrayed in Apple’s Way is about trying to fit your old life into your new one.  While change is the one constant in life, change as radical as living a new life in such extremely different surroundings causes much greater problems along the way, and sometimes teaches some very different lessons.  And while there are obviously times when you’re the student, there are other times when you’re the teacher.

“That’s an important reason Aaron’s Way is such an intriguing series concept.  It deals with a family, which has been living in the old world, suddenly being thrust into a modern-day environment.  Obviously, there’s a lot of conflict there.”
–Merlin Olsen

Sarah and Aaron Miller

Just as George Apple had those moments of culture conflict in Apple’s Way, there was another man who faced many of the same challenges, only in reverse.  In the 1988 NBC series Aaron’s Way, patriarch Aaron Miller (Merlin Olsen) led his Pennsylvania Amish family westward to California, and a winery where his son Noah had once lived.  Although Noah had given up his family’s Amish ways, Aaron had kept in contact with him, until the young man’s death in a surfing accident.  At the funeral, Aaron learns that his son had been living with a woman, and that she was pregnant with their offspring… his grandchild.  In order to support what he feels are his son’s obligations, he moves his Amish family to the winery, where there are gentle clashes in society and style.

Aaron’s wife Sarah (Belinda Montgomery) and their kids are just as confused as the family in Apple’s Way was, but in reverse.  Their simple life and unassuming ways clash, sometimes a bit more sharply, with those of the denizens of California and their supposedly “superior” lifestyle.  But soon-to-be-mother Susannah (Kathleen York) is grateful for their presence, no matter what her more cynical parent Connie (Jessica Walter) may feel about Aaron’s family.  And both families have to deal with Susannah’s brother Mickey (Christopher Gartin), who develops a crush on one of the Miller daughters.

Like Apple’s Way, this was a series that tried to turn a successful “period” piece into a more modern-day one.  Merlin Olsen had been a winning addition to Little House on the Prairie, which led to his starring in Father Murphy for two seasons.   In 1988, NBC needed a companion piece to Michael Landon’s new series, Highway to Heaven, and thus believed Olsen would again be a worthy place to start.  Both shows had a more relaxed presence than many of their television counterparts at the time, and Olsen was a good fit for that style of show.

“For all the technical errors, I think the emotional honesty is there.”
–Creator/Executive Producer William Blinn

Unfortunately, not only did the Millers not fit in (nor were they really expected to, as far as the show was concerned), they also didn’t find any love from either viewers or critics.  Comparatively few watched the show, and those former Amish who saw it disliked its portrayal of the religious community, and rightly so.  This was, unfortunately, Hollywood’s version of Amish, which is occasionally composed more with misunderstanding than sympathy and, as such, didn’t ring true despite the best efforts of some involved.  And so, the lengthy journey the Miller family had undertaken to California ended much sooner than had been anticipated.

Ironically, the cancellation likely simplified Merlin Olsen’s real life, as at the time he was also on NBC’s top team of NFL broadcasters.  The former all-Pro lineman-turned-television analyst was traveling to football games each weekend in the fall, while rushing back to film Aaron’s Way during the week.  Juggling scripts and football programs, not to mention airplane flights and promotional appearances for both NBC entities, made for an extremely hectic life, plus kept Olsen away from his own family (with three growing children).  His family was the primary reason he agreed to perform in Aaron’s Way in the first place, as he felt there were no quality shows on that reached a wide range of ages.

“I like the fact that, at a time when there is very little television that we can sit down and watch together as families, this is the kind of show that really asks people to question what is happening in this world and asks people to look at values.  What is right?  It’s the kind of show that can be very productive in terms of doing something positive instead of instilling an urge to violence in our kids and our adults, as well.”
–Merlin Olsen

In both Apple’s Way and Aaron’s Way, there’s a germ of an idea that apparently Hollywood liked, even though it didn’t really express it well.  There is virtue in a less hectic life, and a pace where time and conscience allows for values which aren’t always found in the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown.  And while it is likely that those involved in green-lighting both series may have admired the sentiment, the presentation wasn’t really consistent with understanding the principles involved.  A simpler life, in a simpler place, doesn’t mean any lack of understanding or knowledge of the ways of the world.  It just means a choice made to savor the moments, to not get caught up in the day-to-day, and to celebrate all those things some people seem to take for granted.  While the simple life isn’t always simple, it is often much better.

(With so many biographies in two large-cast shows, I’ll just list the more well-known personalities here.)

Apple’s Way:

RONNY COX (George Apple) has a long career in television and movies, first making a huge splash in the film Deliverance, and appearing in the original Robocop.  In addition to being mentioned previously on this site for his role on Cop Rock, he’s starred in Sweet Justice and The Agency, as well as featured and recurring roles in Star Trek:  The Next Generation, Stargate SG-1, St. Elsewhere, and The Starter Wife.  His first love is singing, and he’s carved out a pretty good career as a folk/country singer, appearing all over the country, and selling numerous CDs of his songs.

FRANCES LEE McCAIN (Barbara Apple) was featured in many movie roles, including as Marty McFly’s (future) grandmother in Back to the Future, and roles in Patch Adams, Stand by Me, Gremlins, and the original version of Footloose.  A stage actress by preference, she’s also appeared on Broadway, making her debut in Woody Allen’s first stage play, Play It Again, Sam.

VINCENT VAN PATTEN (Paul Apple) is, of course, from an acting family.  His father, Dick, is famous for starring in Eight is Enough, and his brothers James and Nels have also appeared in various television shows and movies.  In addition to his acting, Vincent was also a world-ranked tennis professional (as high as 41st in the world at one point), and he’s also written The Picasso Flop, a mystery set in the world of high-stakes poker.

KRISTIE McNICHOL (Patricia Apple, 2nd season) was extremely young when she joined Apple’s Way, but she went on a year later to star in Family (where she earned two Emmys for Best Supporting Actress) and the comedy Empty Nest.  (She also changed the spelling of her name to Kristy, just in case anyone thinks I’ve got it wrong up above… that’s the way it reads in the credits of Apple’s Way).  Tired of the Hollywood scene (shades of George Apple!), she left the acting profession, although she still teaches drama occasionally.

Aaron’s Way:

MERLIN OLSEN (Aaron Miller) was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, thanks to his stellar 15-year career with the (then) Los Angeles Rams.  He became one of the top NFL broadcasters soon thereafter and, thanks to his relationship with NBC, he also signed on as Jonathan Garvey on Little House on the Prairie.  His “gentle giant” demeanor led to a lead role in Father Murphy a few years later, and then the part of Aaron Miller on Aaron’s Way.  He was a spokesman for FTD Florists, and also hosted numerous telethons for the Children’s Miracle Network.  He passed in 2010 at the age of 69.

BELINDA MONTGOMERY (Sarah Miller) has also made these pages for her role years earlier on Man From Atlantis.  In addition to recurring roles on Miami Vice and guest shots on many other television series, she’s best known as the patient mom of Doogie Howser, M.D.  An avid painter, she currently spends much of her time working with her art, some of which has been shown at various studios throughout North America (and available at her website).

KATHLEEN YORK (Susannah Lo Verde) is a woman of many talents, as she starred in Vengeance Unlimited and had recurring roles in The West Wing and Desperate Housewives.  As a writer, she’s sold scripts to many Hollywood studios, including Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Fox.  As a singer/songwriter, she’s known as Bird York (her nickname), and her music has been featured on multiple CDs and in movies like Crash and TV shows like House and CSI:  NY.

JESSICA WALTER (Connie Lo Verde) has had a long and memorable career on television, known to many as the matriarch of the Bluth family on Arrested Development.  While her first television role was back in The Naked City in 1962 as a child actress, she later starred in Amy Prentiss (as a rotating part of The NBC Mystery Movie), Bare Essence, and was the voice of Fran in Dinosaurs.  Currently, she appears on TVLand’s new series Retired at 35.

CHRISTOPHER GARTIN (Mickey Lo Verde) was a regular on the sitcom Buddies before becoming a part of another memorable one-season show, M.A.N.T.I.S.  He appeared in Baywatch, N.Y.P.D. Blue, Desperate Housewives, and The Mentalist.  He’s also appeared in multiple episodes of True Blood, and the Lifetime series Side Order of Life.

Not a lot exists online for either of these shows.  Neither has come out commercially on DVD, although bootlegs can be found.  Apple’s Way did get the full tie-in treatment (as was popular in the ’70’s), including a novelization and even a lunchbox with the characters pictured on the side.  Although Apple’s Way was a small part of its history, interested parties can find much more information about many Screen Gems and Columbia television series filmed on their backlot at The Unofficial Columbia Ranch Site, full of pictures and stories about the many locations built there.  Due to its shorter run, there’s almost nothing out there for Aaron’s Way in detail.  And maybe that’s proper, as the world of the Amish in general isn’t one for publicity in the first place.  The ways of the world, both complex and simple, will continue….

There are so many different people in this world, and just as many different ideas on how life should be lived.  What is right for some isn’t right for others.  While a great number of us find satisfaction in the lives we lead, George Apple and Aaron Miller both sought a new way to seek their own happiness, far different from the lives they used to have.  Culture shock was a given, but they both had an ideal which they tried to achieve, despite the obstacles found in their way.

The ways of the world are sometimes our own obstacles, but they can be overcome.  The worst thing anyone can do is just accept what is, instead of striving for what can be.  Those who chart their own path create their own happiness, and don’t wait for others to provide it.  A simpler life can be a better one, for those who have the courage and the patience to seek it out, and the consistency to live it despite the pressures of modern society.  Like both Apple’s Way and Aaron’s Way, there’s a way for each of us, if we can “simply” find it.

Vital Stats

Apple’s Way

28 episodes aired — none unaired
CBS Network
First aired episode:  February 10, 1974
Final aired episode:  January 12,1975
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No.  It aired in the “family” slot of Sunday nights at 7:30/6:30 Central, back in the days when networks started the night early and gave the last half hour of prime time back to local stations.

Aaron’s Way

A two-hour premiere and 12 hour-long episodes — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode:  March 9, 1988
Final aired episode:  May 25, 1988
Aired Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Again, no.  It ran into Growing Pains when it was a Top 10 show on Wednesdays @ 8/7 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“I actually had dinner with William Goldman and picked his brain about The Princess Bride before I did WizardsThe Princess Bride was my favorite book.”
–Executive Producer/Creator Don Reo

Dirk Blackpool vs. Erik Greystone in the opening of Wizards and Warriors

Every fan of “genre” movies (be it featuring science fiction, fantasy, or just plain quirky fun) is likely familiar with The Princess Bride.  While the book was written back in 1973, it became a modest hit when it was released as a movie in 1987, and de rigeuer for those who’ve fallen in love with its unique combination of wit, style, and fun.  Its combination of high fantasy and occasionally low comedy made it a favorite of many, especially those drawn to the ideas presented in stories about knights and princesses, knaves and magicians, and the romance and adventure contained within.  It has become a cult classic in the best sense of the term, ranking high on many lists of both the greatest comedies and the greatest love stories ever told.  The Princess Bride became required viewing for all those with any serious “geek” credibility, to the point where one friend was advised to “turn in his geek card” when it was discovered he’d never actually seen the movie.  (Don’t worry, that omission was rectified fairly quickly… and with much laughter and fun.)

Well-aware geeks knew about the original book, long before the movie had ever reached the local cineplex.  Don Reo was one of those people, and fortunately, he also was a TV producer.  With The Princess Bride novel in hand, and conversations with author William Goldman having taken place, he took the wonderful mixture of fantasy and comedy to CBS who, four years BEFORE The Princess Bride movie was seen by the public, gave a green light to a new hour-long comedy/drama set in medieval times called Wizards and Warriors.

While it certainly wasn’t The Princess Bride, Wizards and Warriors was still a terrific mixture of high fantasy and low comedy; Don Reo’s take on a television version similar in tone and style to the book he loved so well.  In Reo’s version, the story takes place on the dragon-shaped continent of Aperans.  Here we find two very different kingdoms:  the virtuous kingdom of Camarand, and the nefarious land of Karteia.  Karteia’s battle against Camarand has been going on for quite a while, but never fear — virtue always triumphs in the end, no matter what evil has in store… and no matter how much fun the viewers have along the way!

Erik and Marko

The hero of our story is Prince Erik Greystone (Jeff Conaway), virtue’s golden boy himself.  He’s such a hero that, when he’s in full sunlight, he practically has a halo.  Valiant as any other hero, he’s never afraid to fight for what is right and just.  And although evil may cheat, he never, ever would.  He’s aided in these battles by his trusty servant Marko (Walter Olkewicz).  One of the strongest men in the kingdom, he’d rather eat than fight, but stands by Erik’s side through thick and thin (although the very idea of “thin” reminds him of diets, and those he simply can’t stand).  But when defending the honor of his Prince Erik and their blessed Camarand, Marko can always be found at the ready… or the buffet line, depending on the time of day.  Together, they face the deadly schemes of the week, and the forces of evil conspiring against their kingdom.

Vector and Dirk

Erik’s mortal enemy is Prince Dirk Blackpool (Duncan Regehr), leader of Karteia.  Drop dead handsome, he’s also the sworn rival of Prince Erik, and he would use any nefarious means available to win (even if normal means would be simpler and easier).  He’s aided in this effort by the scantily clad witch Bethel (Randi Brooks), who has her own eyes on the political prize of ruling the continent, even though as a magical being she’s supposedly prohibited from doing so.  Her indirect aid enabled Dirk to control the powers of the magician Vector (Clive Revill).  Vector’s plans are ostensibly to help Blackpool rule the land, but Vector is also not above trying to scheme his way to freedom from Blackpool’s service either.  If Vector could ever prove Bethel’s complicity in the matter, she would be gone, and so the two magical rivals try to hinder each other, even as they are supposedly united to help Blackpool.

In addition to fighting the schemes of Blackpool and the magic of Bethel and Vector, Erik has one other little problem.  Since childhood, he’s been promised in marriage to the Princess Ariel Baaldorf (Julia Duffy).  Ariel can’t concern herself with petty problems like kingdoms at war and all that noise, especially when there are parties to plan and shoes to buy, and a potential wedding in the future (even though the groom seems to be just a TAD reluctant).  Besides, there’s this silly hat….

“Well, we never, ever considered it a comedy. We always thought of it as an adventure show.  Nobody ever considered it to be comedic.”
–Don Reo

Like a movie, there was no laugh track on Wizards and Warriors.  The cast played everything absolutely straight, as if the fantasy scenes were truly life and death, completely real… which just made them more funny.  It’s a secret of comedy that, as soon as the actor/character lets the audience know that they’re in on the joke, there’s no longer really any joke.  The humor is lost.  And most times (if planned correctly), the more honestly and believably a scene is played, the more funny it becomes.  This was the aim of Don Reo and Wizards and Warriors.

The idea trickled down to the rest of the crew.  Many installments were directed by actor/director Bill Bixby, whose years on The Incredible Hulk made him a perfect choice to combine reality and fantasy.  James Frawley was the director of the pilot episode, and cut his teeth on directing The Monkees back in the ’60’s, as well as directing The Muppet Movie just a few years earlier.  So a group was assembled that knew how to anchor a world of imagination into a filmable place.

Dirk and Bethel

As a Set Designer, Peter Wooley had worked on everything from Mel Brooks’ comedy western Blazing Saddles to fraternity humored Porky’s Revenge, with a long and storied history in Hollywood.  Although he was a veteran of both drama and comedy, and well-versed in historical realism (including the supposed medieval setting of Wizards and Warriors), he knew the tone of the show would call for something… unique.

“There was always that line that we walked. The actors could perform absolutely dead on the money and the directors could direct that way, but as far as the look was concerned, it was always supposed to be just a little off-center.  We really didn’t want to say, ‘This is absolutely the facts’ or [this is] ‘absolutely serious’ — we just didn’t want it that way.  It was neither fake nor real.  It was whatever just tickled us at the time.  We didn’t want it to be outright cheesy, we always wanted to have a look, but we never really wanted to say, ‘Oh, this is the way it really is.'”
–Set Designer Peter Woodley

Ariel, kidnapped by Dirk

The episode titles for the series were filled with doom and gloom, as appropriate for a momentous fantasy.  “Night of Terror“, “Skies of Death“, and “Caverns of Chaos” conjure up images of swordplay and derring-do, with mighty battles and magical mystery.  But with the addition of a few odd characters here and there, the momentous fantasy morphs into a romp worthy of notice from a comedic perspective as well as a dramatic one.  While Jeff Conaway is great as the wholesome Erik, Duncan Regehr as Dirk Blackpool practically steals every scene he’s in, with a silky evil grace and ridiculously tight-fitting leather pants.  And Julia Duffy, as the spoiled princess, would go on to play a modern-day version of her character in the sitcom Newhart, complete with addiction to shoes and a clueless lack of understanding that there’s more to the world than just HER.  But then, none of this was reality, no matter how it was played….

Much like its inspirational beginning in The Princess Bride, Wizards and Warriors was, first and foremost, a storybook.  And like all storybook stories, while there may be some type of magic or mystical realm, there must still be a sense of reality, even if it’s a different reality from the one we exist in today.  Wizards and Warriors was at least successful in creating that tone, and the work of all the regulars (and a great many recurring actors) portrayed a world which was fanciful, fun, and yet filled with the kind of menace and threat found in all great fairy tales.  Reo, Conaway, Regehr, Duffy, and all the rest were pitch-perfect in their presentation of kingdoms which actually might exist, just tilted slightly enough to be fun and adventurous.

“I’m not sure what happened with Wizards and Warriors, but satire is a very difficult genre to do on television.  It’s a difficult genre to do anywhere.”
–Director James Frawley

Vector and Bethel, perhaps plotting a return to television?

Of course, networks aren’t known to be fans of satire.  And there are more than a few in the audience to whom fun and adventurous mean something quite different from menacing dragons and magic spells.  Wizards and Warriors only lasted a few months, scheduled on Saturday nights with lackluster promotion and little faith in its chances to begin with.  Whether due to scheduling issues, being misunderstood by the audience, or just not having a popular enough tone, the series came to an abrupt end, filming only 8 of the originally ordered 12 episodes.

But the memory of Wizards and Warriors lives on, especially for those of us who reveled in the laughter and the adventure, the imagination and the almost-reality of it all.  And although we now live in a world where Disney seems to have the trademark on fairy-tale Princesses, there’s still a place where we can find a terrific storybook kingdom.  Just like the inspiration it found in The Princess Bride, it’s a place where Wizards and Warriors still rule supreme.

JEFF CONAWAY (Prince Erik Greystone) succeeded Barry Bostwick as the lead role of Danny Zuko in the Broadway production of Grease, but ended up with the second male lead of Kenickie in the film version with his friend John Travolta (Conaway had to stoop to make Travolta look taller).  Known for his comedic work on the hit series Taxi, he later became a regular on Babylon 5 after stopping by one day to observe filming.  Pressed into service in a minor role that ended up recurring, and he became a regular before the five-year run finished.  An addiction to pain killers (due to a back injury suffered during the filming of Grease) haunted him throughout his life, and he died due to associated causes in 2011.

WALTER OLKEWICZ (Marko) had regular roles in The Last Resort, Partners in Crime, and Dolly (with Dolly Parton).  Best known as Dougie on Grace Under Fire, he’s also appeared in multiple roles on Night Court, Family Ties, and Barney Miller.  His son dropped out of high school to take care of Walter during an illness, but the youth was one of only six people in the country to record a perfect 4000 test score on the GED test later that year.

DUNCAN REGEHR (Prince Dirk Blackpool) has made many hearts swoon with his darkly handsome good looks and dashing style.  He was the title character (and performed many of his own stunts) in The Family Channel’s adaptation of Zorro, and played recurring roles in the original V series and on Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine.  A man of many talents, he was a champion figure skater in his youth, and almost made the Canadian Olympic Boxing team.  He now splits his time between acting and art, and his paintings have graced many significant collections, including the Smithsonian, and museums in China, Canada, Denmark, and Scotland.

RANDI BROOKS (Witch Bethel) appeared in many TV series during the ’80’s, including Mork & Mindy, The Greatest American Hero, The Dukes of Hazard, and Magnum, P.I.  She was a regular on the short-lived The Last Precinct, and later retired from the acting business to raise her three children.

CLIVE REVILL (Wizard Vector) has been featured here before for his role in Probe.  An international actor, he’s been in many British productions as well as American ones.  Interestingly enough, he was the original voice of the Emperor (and is still credited as such) in Star Wars:  The Empire Strikes Back, although his voice was later replaced for continuity’s sake by actor Ian McDiarmid, who performed the part in Return of the Jedi.

JULIA DUFFY (Princess Ariel Baaldorf) was a standout for seven years on Newhart (where she was nominated for an Emmy as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy EVERY YEAR she appeared), and starred in Baby Talk, Designing Women, and The Mommies.  She was the original choice for the role of Diane on Cheers, which later went to actress Shelly Long.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children.

While Wizards and Warriors has yet to be commercially released on DVD, there are bootlegs out there, and recent rumors hint at the possibility of a licensed release in the near future.  As far as information on the show, there’s a terrific website called The Land of Aperans, which was invaluable in the composition of this article, and I urge anyone with interest in the series to go visit.  It’s well worth the effort and there’s a tremendous amount of material there.  And here’s a particularly good clip of Dirk and Vector from the series, showing both the seriousness and the camp of the show.

The end of Wizards and Warriors was unfortunate.  Some blamed the expense of creating a new and different world every week, and others say that today’s special effects would be a much greater boon to the project.  If you look at more current schedules, fairy tales seem to be making a comeback, with ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm showing two very different looks at storybook storytelling.  But Wizards and Warriors was simply a show before its time, and twenty years later, its audience has grown up into people who now make television of their own, with their own ideas of fantasy.

But the inspiration for much of modern fantasy, with tongue in cheek, comes from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.  And whether producers were influenced by the original book or the seminal film, its influence ranged far and wide.  The one that was just a bit ahead of the curve was Wizards and Warriors, and I can only hope it also paved a bit of the way for today’s humorous fantasy, and can be remembered as a slightly off-kilter part of royalty as well.

Vital Stats

8 episodes aired — none unaired — Not yet available on DVD (but there ARE rumors!!)
CBS Network
First aired episode:  February 26, 1983
Final aired episode:  May 14, 1983
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, but if there’s a worse slot, it was on Saturdays at 8/7 Central.  It aired on a night when there was only ONE show in the top 30, and that was rival ABC’s The Love Boat.  Putting it on Saturdays was a curse more effective than magic.

Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“People would paint this as teenagers in tinfoil hats.  That’s not what this is.  These are educated professionals.”
–Clarke Ingrahm, one of the founders of the movement to save Jericho

Some people on the edges of society become “Survival Nuts”; the type that believe Armageddon is just around the corner.  They have their shelters already outfitted with weaponry and non-perishable food to last through what they perceive is coming, their own idea of “the end of the world”.  Now, while most TV shows have nothing to do with this, at least one well-remembered short-lived series didn’t just portray “the end of the world,” but showed dramatically what actually might happen afterwards.

In the 2006 CBS series Jericho, the residents of a small town in Kansas have to face the unthinkable:  a nuclear detonation has occurred in Denver, and although the explosion is far enough away to preserve the town, their existence is now changed forever.  Slowly, they learn that many other locations in the United States have been devastated as well, and now they must discover how to survive in a place where supplies are limited, and where order has turned into chaos.  They and their fellow residents are suddenly showing, in their reactions to the crisis, whether they are going help each other, or decide it’s now “every man for himself”.

Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) has previously been someone who believes in the “every man for himself” principle.  He left the small town of Jericho, Kansas a few years before, leaving his family behind (as well as his troublesome youth).  On the fateful day of the explosion (or is it an attack?), he’s visiting for the first time in ages, but all he seems to want is an advance on his family inheritance and as little “connection” with them as possible.  Of course, the radical events in the country around him suddenly change all that, and now he’s back in Jericho with no other place to go.

Eric and Johnston

He decides, reluctantly, to help rebuild both his family and his town, thanks to his stalwart mom Gail (Pamela Reed) and his stoic father Johnston (Gerald McRainey).  Johnston is the current mayor of Jericho, and recruits his prodigal son into helping organize the town, attempting to provide for their well-being in the aftermath.  Jake is reunited with his brother Eric (Kenneth Mitchell), and also with an old flame, the newly married Emily Sullivan (Ashley Scott).  Emily’s new husband is missing, and possibly dead in the attacks, so Jake has to confront the possibility of rekindled feelings and reconciliation.  Everything is uncertain, as the world has suddenly changed.

Mimi and Stanley, with Jake

The rest of the town is uncertain as well, particularly about how it will survive.  Johnston has a rival in Gray Anderson (Michael Gaston), who has different ideas about how the town should be run in this “new world”, and Gray soon opposes him as leader of the community.  At the time of the attack, a visitor from Washington D.C., Mimi Clark (Alicia Coppola), was in town to foreclose upon the land belonging to local farmer Stanley Richmond (Brad Beyer) and his deaf sister Bonnie (Shoshannah Stern).  With foreclosure now meaningless and the goal of survival more important, a relationship ultimately develops between the young farmer and his former adversary, much to the dismay of the sister.

Elementary school teacher Heather Lisinski (Sprague Grayden) is most concerned, initially, with the children of Jericho, and she starts to develop feelings for Jake after he saves one of her charges.  But after she herself is injured, she ends up in a military hospital where she finds out about far more of what is going on in the outside world than most of Jericho is aware of.  One of the older students, Dale Turner (Eric Knudsen), decides that “the ends justify the means”, and becomes a valuable (if ethically shady) member of the community, with the resources to gain many of the items needed by the community (such as medicine and food).  But you may not want to know exactly what he did to acquire them, or who you’d have to thank….

Lastly, there’s new resident Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) and his family, who says they are from St. Louis.  He seems to be an expert in many technical areas, supposedly from training he received as a police officer there after 9/11.  He becomes a friend to Jake, although his background and motives still seem a mystery, even to his family.  Oh, and there’s a few other things…. he’s got hidden military skills, a link to a satellite dish, and a nuclear bomb, like the ones used to blow up Denver, Washington D.C., and assorted other places in the country…..

“We’re trying very hard to create a landscape that the audience can put themselves into and say, ‘Wow, what would I do?  How would I survive?  How would I react in that situation?’  We realize that we’re asking the audience to take a huge leap with us in that there’s this massive attack.”
–Carol Barbee, Executive Producer of Jericho

The stories of these many residents intersect, as each tries to figure out exactly how life will continue in their new situation, and their first problems (after basic survival) concern what is going on in the world around them.  Contact is made with a nearby larger town, New Bern, and while it is initially peaceful and beneficial for both locales, conflict soon ensues.  At the end of the initial season’s worth of shows, a cliffhanger ending presents both cities on the brink of a pitched battle to defend what is left of their way of life.  After the nuclear blast and surviving the imagined “end of the world”, is this new threat going to signal the true final outcome of the town of Jericho?

Well, yes, according to CBS.  Despite a good start, the series was canceled, likely due to a significant scheduled hiatus in the middle of the season.  Many previous viewers thought the series had ALREADY been given a pink slip, and didn’t find it again the following spring when it returned for the second half of its season.  Ratings dipped, and just like the explosion in Denver, Jericho paid the price despite not being at fault.

“We consistently held 8 or 9 million viewers, even going up against [Fox’s American Idol], so everyone was really surprised and shocked that we were canceled.  You have to move on and let go, but you see all this fan support and you keep that tiny bit of hope in your heart.”
–actor Brad Beyer

“Nuts!”
–Jake, responding to New Bern’s demand of surrender

In that final cliffhanger ending episode, Jake is confronted by the leader of the invading town.  Echoing the response of General Anthony McAluffe at the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, Jake’s response to the question of surrender was the same as General McAluffe’s:  “Nuts!”  Both were faced with insurmountable odds, and yet believed in their cause so completely that they were willing to make a stand… and succeed.

The resolve of Jericho fans was also hardened upon news of the cancellation, and a campaign was soon mounted to hopefully change the minds of executives at CBS. In this case, as a way to gain the studio’s notice, fans decided to send in something other than letters and e-mails to make their point.  Just as Jake had referred to General McAluffe, they wanted something identifiable as part of the defense of Jericho.  They literally sent in “nuts”.

Packets of peanuts, cans and jars, and boxes and bags of assorted kinds, all containing nuts, were received by CBS over the next few weeks and months.  They were inundated by the stuff, so much that individuals were hired just to help the overloaded staff with them.  In all, it is said that 20 TONS of various types of nuts were sent in support of Jericho‘s renewal.  On one day alone (May 29 of that year), over 10,000 pounds of nuts were received at the CBS New York offices!

While campaigns to save cancelled shows have been tried in the past, most have not been successful.  Television is still a business in the end, and many times a show that had ended simply has too many hurdles to leap in order to return in the first place.  Sets have been dismantled, cast and crew members have scattered to new projects, and a show already has the stigma of “failure” in the television world to fight.  For business reasons alone, it’s harder to effectively “re-mount” a production than it is to start something else fresh.  But this show had the unique combination of fervent audience base, heroes who believed in the show at the network, a large percentage of nearby location shooting (which meant, in this case, that important exterior sets still existed), and a staff, both on-screen and behind the camera, who wanted to continue telling the unique stories only possible on Jericho.

Thanks to quick work on the part of the fans, the network, the production company, and all the rest involved, Jericho did not face yet another ending, but was renewed for seven episodes as a mid-season replacement.  But the renewal didn’t come without a warning to those who were ready to celebrate their success.

“You got our attention; your emails and collective voice have been heard.  In success, there is the potential for more.  But, for there to be more Jericho, we will need more viewers.  A loyal and passionate community has clearly formed around the show.  But that community needs to grow.  It needs to grow on the CBS Television Network, as well as on the many digital platforms where we make the show available.  We will count on you to rally around the show, to recruit new viewers with the same grass-roots energy, intensity, and volume you have displayed in recent weeks.”
–Nina Tassler,  CBS Entertainment President, announcing the renewal of Jericho

Oh, yeah, and they also asked people to please stop sending nuts.  Fans being fans, they didn’t, but in gratitude, sent care packages of MORE nuts to various food banks and charities instead.  CBS followed suit, and donated what they had received to other organizations, including one which sends various care packages overseas to military men and women stationed far from home.  In a definite win-win situation, fans benefited, charities benefited, CBS got some well-needed good publicity for listening to the fans, and everyone was eager for what was to come.

A seven-episode second season debuted that next February, resolving the cliffhanger ending and, although the critical reviews were generally positive, Jericho still didn’t find enough of an audience for it to survive.  A comic book version followed (commonly referred to as “Season 3”), and rumors of a revival or sequel movie on cable persist, but the televised story of what happens after “the end of the world” finished after two hard-fought seasons for survival.  And 20 TONS of nuts.

SKEET ULRICH (Jake Green) was a regular in Miracles before he landed in Jericho, and was also the star of Law and Order:  LA before the show was rebooted and his character was eliminated.  His stage name “Skeet” comes from his first nickname as a little-league baseball player, when he was known as “Skeeter”.

PAMELA REED (Gail Green) starred in the HBO spoof on elections called Tanner ’88, and in the short-lived comedies Grand and The Home Court.  She has a recurring part on Parks and Recreation as the lead character’s mother, and her best known movie role was as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s partner in Kindergarten Cop.

GERALD McRAINEY (Johnston Green) has been a lead in two very successful series, Simon & Simon and Major Dad.  He’s also had featured roles in Women’s Murder Club, Promised Land, Deadwood, Undercovers, and currently on Fairly Legal.  He also appeared multiple times on Designing Women, playing the ex-husband of Delta Burke’s character, and the two hit it off so well that he later married Burke in real life.

KENNETH MITCHELL (Eric Green) first was seen as a recurring character on Showtime’s quirky series Leap Year, before appearing on many episodes of Odyssey 5.  After Jericho, he had an occasional part on Ghost Whisperer.  Most recently seen in episodes of Castle and The Mentalist, he’s an avid horseman, and he also has a degree in architecture.

ASHLEY SCOTT (Emily Sullivan) is familiar to genre fans, having appeared in Dark Angel and as one of the three leads in the television series adapted from the comic Birds of Prey.  Originally a fashion model before taking up acting, she was featured in both 2005 and 2008 in Maxim Magazine on their annual list of the world’s hottest women.

MICHAEL GASTON (Gray Anderson) is a popular TV actor, and has been a regular in Deadline, Blind Justice, The Mentalist for one season, Terriers, and currently on the CBS hit Unforgettable.  He was also featured in story arcs on The Sopranos and Prison Break.  Prior to his television work, he’s appeared in live theatre both on- and off-Broadway.

ALICIA COPPOLA (Mimi Clark) got a soap opera start on Another World, before moving to prime-time guest spots in shows like Sports Night, Star Trek: Voyager, Crossing Jordan, and CSI.   She portrayed a naval lawyer in multiple episodes of both JAG and NCIS, and was a regular in Cold Feet, Bull, and American Dreams.

BRAD BEYER (Stanley Richmond) originally took an acting class for non-theatre majors in college, before one of his instructors told him he should think about acting as a profession.  He was seen in numerous episodes of Third Watch, and is a regular on the upcoming January 2012 ABC series entitled G.C.B.

SHOSHANNAH STERN (Bonnie Richmond) had to learn English as a second language, as she was born into a deaf family, and the primary language in their home was American Sign Language.  She’s learned English and lip-reading proficiently, and works as an actress with no special interpreter.  Her recurring role on the short-run series Threat Matrix was specifically written for her, and incorporated many of her unique abilities, and she also had a featured part on the Showtime series Weeds.

SPRAGUE GRAYDEN (Heather Lisinski) was a regular on the FOX series John Doe, and also had significant parts on Six Feet Under, Joan of Arcadia, and Over There.  She was the female lead in the recent Paranormal Activity horror franchise, and also had appearances on Sons of Anarchy and 24.

ERIK KNUDSEN (Dale Turner) has appeared in primarily Canadian productions, although audiences in American may have caught him in episodes of Flashpoint or the movies Saw II and horror/parody movie Scream 4.  Genre fans would find him as part of the cast of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (and yes, I’m biased, but this is a fantastic film… go see it!!!!)

LENNIE JAMES (Robert Hawkins) is actually British, although you’d never know it from his speech patterns on Jericho.  Much of his work has been in Britain, including appearances on many BBC dramas and radio plays.  In America, he was featured in the AMC remake of The Prisoner, and also on AMC’s The Walking Dead.  He is also an award-winning playwright, with his works having been featured on the BBC as televised stage productions.

Even after Jericho “ended” the second time, it was still too strong to die.  The CW Network (also owned by CBS) reran the show in place of its quickly canceled series Valentine during the 2008-2009 season, showing the entire 29-episode run.  CBS also tried at one point to work out a deal with the Comcast cable network, similar to the one which kept Friday Night Lights in production with initial airings exclusive to Dish Satellite before their network broadcasts, but that fell through.  Fans can, however, still relive memories of what does exist.

Both seasons one and two of Jericho are available on DVD, with plenty of extras.  The first season is streamable for those with Netflix access, and the entire second season is available with commentary on the CBS.com site.  The “third season” comic has been combined into a trade paperback edition, with a story created by those involved with the series, so it is a genuine continuation of the televised events on the show.  A decent website concerning the thoughts of some involved in the “Nuts” campaign is found here, and there’s a wiki concerning the events, characters, and settings of the show found here.

This was the iconic image of the show, from one of its first scenes.  The idea of a series about what happens after an apocalyptic event like a nuclear bomb explosion was enough to gain the interest of many.  A fervent following for the show wanted to see even more, and although the audience was ultimately too small for Jericho to become a hit, they were active, well-organized, and discovered a way, like the citizens of Jericho they watched each week, to try and save something they believed was important.

Those fans weren’t “tinfoil hat” crazy, they just found a battle they believed worth fighting, even when the odds were terribly against them.  In the case of Jericho, “Survival Nuts” meant something far different from someone barricaded in a fallout shelter with a year’s supply of canned goods and weapons.  It meant a way to keep telling stories of people, both heroic and not, and how they faced what many consider “the end of the world”.  Only those fans refused to see an end.  Just like the residents of Jericho.

Vital Stats

29 episodes — all available on DVD — none unaired
CBS Network
First aired episode:  September 20, 2006
Final aired episode:  March 25, 2008
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, it aired originally on Tuesday nights, and although it got bumped a bit on the schedule, the biggest problem was a three-month hiatus during its first season.  Sadly, on television, there is an “end of the world”.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“Let’s do it.”
“Amen.”
“Slow and easy.”
“All the way.”
“To the hilt.”
–the five heroes of Outlaws, each ready to go into battle together

Some people live in the past.  There are large numbers who spend their spare time recreating different eras, whether it’s medieval times, the Revolutionary War, or the Victorian Era.  That’s all well and good, but what would happen if you brought someone from the past forward to a more modern era?  What mores and behaviors might we discover?  And what attitudes would they bring with them, transported forward a century?

The romanticism of the Old West was a staple of early television, but westerns as a significant portion of the programming landscape died out after the ’60’s.  Occasional revival efforts were made, but one show turned the idea on its head.  In the 1986 CBS series Outlaws, viewers got to see how western attitudes coped in a modern society.  Could their Code of the West, as exemplified by their quotes above, survive today?

Back in 1899, veteran lawman (and reformed outlaw) Sheriff Jonathan Grail (Rod Taylor) had finally cornered his former criminal group, now known as the Pike Gang.  Lead by Harland Pike (William Lucking) and his hot-headed younger brother Billy (Patrick Houser), the four-man group had just robbed a bank, and they’d been trapped by a local posse in an Indian burial ground.  Along with fellow members Wolfson Lucas (Charles Napier) and former slave Isaiah “Ice” McAdams (Richard Roundtree), the Pike Gang was ready to make a final stand against their ex-leader.  As thunder rolled and the bullets were about to fly, a freak bolt of lightning engulfed the five of them.

“What in the name of all that’s holy was that?”
–Wolfson Lucas

They awaken to find their weapons all useless from the electrical bolt, but weapons are the least of their worries.  The storm gone, they all hear a low rumbling… which turns out to be a jet airplane taking off over their heads.  Frightened by this unknown machine ( as even cars were a new invention back in 1899), they put their differences aside to discover what might have happened to them.

Arriving at the crest of a hill, they look down into the valley and discover Houston, Texas… but it’s the Houston of 1986, and they’ve been somehow transported into the “present day”.  After the usual “fish-out-of-water” misunderstandings, they discover their loot, a saddlebag full of double eagle solid gold dollars, is now worth a fortune… and it lets the group set themselves up with a new place to live, and no worries about income.  But what will they do in the modern day?

“If we hadn’t rode that lightning bolt from 1899 to now, we would have shot each other to death.  Or you would have hung.  And there would have been no future at all.  And no wonderment like that.  It don’t happen without a good reason.”
–Frank Grail

The group may have been Outlaws at one time, but Grail and the Pike Gang’s legacy as bank robbers is long forgotten in the past.  They decide to create new lives for themselves, with something other the word “Thief” written on their tombstones.  It turns out their frontier skills are actually useful, and their Code of the West still has a place in modern day.  Between a lawman, a bunch of former crooks with an old west sense of justice, and an occasional excuse for a bar fight, Houston has their very own new set of Outlaws.  The group forms the Double Eagle Ranch Detection Agency, using their old-school ways to hunt down lawbreakers in a new century.

After they move into their new ranch, they meet their neighbor, Maggie Randall (Christina Belford).  She happens to be a Texas Deputy, and is initially suspicious of the new people next door.  But she develops a fond relationship with them, despite their evasions about their past.

Grail is once again, ostensibly, their leader.  The Pike brothers are both trying to figure out how they fit into this century, the elder with reason and the younger with emotion.  Wolfson is a religious type, trying to determine how his belief system can adapt to all the changes in a society he doesn’t recognize in the least.  And former slave Isaiah has suddenly entered a world of wonder, where racial equality is much more of a reality and man has traveled to the moon.  But all five of these men soon realize that their future is bound up with each other, taken out of time.  Outlaws by history, they are heroes by nature.

As I said, televised westerns were a staple of the early days of the medium.  In the 1950’s and ’60’s, there were often at least one western broadcast on network television every evening, and many nights featured more.  Production on a back lot was relatively inexpensive, and extensive use was made of the previous inventory of studios, where costumes and standing sets had been built for numerous feature films and 2-reeler shorts throughout the black-and-white movie era.  It was a familiar path from those productions to television, and it’s no coincidence that the longest running live-action drama in history was the western Gunsmoke, which ran for 21 consecutive seasons. In the prime-time landscape of 1959, there were more than THIRTY westerns on the network schedule.

In an era of social change like the 1960’s, westerns still represented a more traditional way of looking at people, by romanticizing and reinforcing the “hero-and-villain” mentality many were still trying to hold on to in those turbulent days.  When most homes still only had one breadwinner and one television set (and only three networks to choose from), shows like Rawhide, Bonanza, and The Rifleman were popular fare, but change was coming.

Stanwyck in The Big Valley

The Big Valley aired in the late 1960’s, featuring Barbara Stanwyck as the feisty widow and leader of a ranching family.  It began to break the mold of previous westerns by having a female lead, the equal of any man and better than many.  In the real-world struggle for women’s equality, The Big Valley was a way to meld the two ideas of tradition and societal evolution on-screen, just as popular western High Chaparral used storylines featuring minority characters of Native American and Latino heritage as more than just the ciphers they’d been in previous series.  Society was changing, and television was changing with it.

But there were still many for whom the future, in its romanticized way, was the past.  And, if chosen well, there are lessons to be learned and behaviors to be modeled by those heroes of the Old West, which is what Outlaws was hoping to do.  Although other shows may ultimately have found a way to showcase those ideas more popularly (the series Walker: Texas Ranger comes to mind), Outlaws was the only one which found a way to truly dramatize the transformation from Old West to New West, from the rough-and-tumble days of cowboys to the concrete canyons of a modern metropolis.  They kept the Code of the West, and it didn’t matter if it was the Old West or the New.

Rod Taylor

Outlaws Creator Nicholas Corea was a former Marine, decorated with the Purple Heart in Vietnam.  He developed an extensive a television career, having produced and written for a wide variety of programs.  As a writer and consultant for Walker: Texas Ranger, he wrote what is considered to be one of the best episodes of that series, Brothers in Arms.  (He also created The Oregon Trail for television, and clips from that series were used in a flashback for the characters of Grail and Pike in Outlaws, as it had featured actors Rod Taylor and Charles Napier.)  No matter what era or arena, his characters often had the heroic sensibilities of a traditional western hero, whether presented in the futuristic context of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, flying in a fighter squadron on WWII drama Baa Baa Black Sheep, or as seen in the loner of Dr. David Banner on The Incredible Hulk.  In Outlaws, he combined all of these heroes into characters no longer in their own time, but still in possession of their own morality, their own sense of justice, and their ability to create their own future, no matter how long ago their past actually was.

To Nicholas Corea, these are the true lessons of drama and humanity:  that we each have, at our core, the ability to transcend place and time by treating ourselves and each other with honor, respect, and dignity, to protect the innocent, and to find justice for all.  While westerns may have had their place in telling that tale, his career proved the setting really doesn’t matter.  Whether it’s 1899 or 1986, in the Old West or the New, it’s all about the character of the people.  It’s about living according to the Code of the West.

ROD TAYLOR (Jonathan Grail) is known by SF fans for his starring role in George Pal’s legendary version of H.G. Wells The Time Machine.  He also had a major role in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds.  His television presence has been featured on this site before, for his lead role in Masquerade, plus the series Bearcats!, The Oregon Trail, and Falcon Crest.  He recently played Winston Churchill in the 2009 Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds.

WILLIAM LUCKING (Harland Pike) has had a long and illustrious career in acting, starting in the late ’60’s.  His adventures in western include appearing on Bonanza, The Virginian, Lancer, and Gunsmoke, and he was also on numerous other shows.  Just prior to Outlaws, he was one of the lead military men to be seen chasing The A-Team during their first season, and most recently he’s returned to his “outlaw” ways as a regular in the biker gang featured on Sons of Anarchy.

PATRICK HOUSER (Billy Pike, Jr.) had a short film career, mostly noted by roles in silly movie comedies aimed at teen audiences.  His movie roles included Weekend Pass, Hot Dog… the Movie, and Spiker, each of which allowed him to display his athletic talents as well as his acting ability.

CHARLES NAPIER (Wolfson Lucas) is known for his craggy face and gravely voice, which served him well in The Oregon Trail and as a recurring character on B.J. and the Bear.  That voice also led him to a career in animation, speaking for characters in shows like The Critic, Men in Black:  The Series, and God, the Devil, and Bob.  In movies, he’s known for playing Sylvester Stallone’s nemesis in Rambo:  First Blood Part II, and although it was never publicized widely, he provided the growls and roars for The Incredible Hulk in the ’70’s TV series.

RICHARD ROUNDTREE (Isaiah “Ice” McAdams) essayed the title character in the 1971 movie Shaft, probably the best known “blaxploitation” movie ever made (and certainly the most popular).  He appeared again in multiple sequels, plus starred in a tv series of the same name.  A recurring character on numerous series like Beauty and the Beast and Roc, he returned to lead roles in 413 Hope St. and Soul Food.  Most recently, he’s appeared on episodes of Heroes and Diary of a Single Mom.

CRISTINA BELFORD (Maggie Randall) is also credited as “Christine” Belford, and has made a career out of “recurring” characters.  Most notably, she was featured as the on-again off-again love interest on Banacek, as well as acting on multiple episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., Silver Spoons, Wonder Woman, Dynasty, and the original Beverly Hills 90210.  She grew up in Amityville N.Y., and actually lived in the famous Amityville Horror house prior to the events that led to it supposedly being “haunted”.

Despite its unique premise, Outlaws doesn’t really have that much of a presence online, and as an 80’s show made before the advent of widespread DVD releases (and the accompanying contracts allowing such for music and other performance rights), the show isn’t commercially available anywhere.  Thankfully, it was new enough (and different enough) to get the taping treatment done by fans during its original run, especially those of Rod Taylor and his genre work, and so bootlegs are reasonably found.  Surprisingly, more of the older era of westerns are available, probably due to their existence on film rather than the video tape medium thought of as “cutting edge” in the 80’s.  Just one more instance where older tech was better than “modern”, a theme Outlaws knew well.

Maggie:  “Who are you?”

Grail:  “Outlaws.  Outlaws who’ve seen the light….”

There is a reason why westerns as a genre died out on television.  The changes of society, such as the evolving roles of women and minorities, were reflected in the popular television of the day.  The idea of the western gunslinger hero and his lonely prairie was not one a vast majority of viewers could identify with and reconcile those social changes.  Even the series that do occasionally try to revive the western genre have to provide a different spin for a more modern time, like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman or Little House on the Prairie.  The western hero, as well as the western villain, may be archetypes, but more recent audiences typically demand a bit more gray area than the “white hat” and “black hat” the cowboy period expresses so well.  Those days are gone, as are the westerns that portrayed them.

But some things really never change, and those parts of the western are still what attracts some to their adventures.  There’s a reason the idea of a Code of the West lives on.  The idea that justice is part of what makes a person good, and that there are still right ways and wrong ways to treat other people, aren’t just western ideals, but human ones.  It’s sometimes too easy to forget these ideals in a complicated and frantic world, and perhaps we just need a good reminder once in a while.  I’d like to believe that’s where shows like Outlaws come in.  They’re not presenting a way of life that used to be better… they’re presenting a way of life that should be eternal.  Good people, with good hearts, are always heroes… even when they’re Outlaws.

Vital Stats

2-hour pilot and 11 hour-long episodes — none unaired
CBS Network
First aired episode:  December 28, 1986
Final aired episode:  May 2, 1987
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  The pilot aired as a CBS Sunday Movie, before the series settled into its regular slot on Saturday @ 8/7 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

OK, so you’re hurting.  You need a doctor.  But which kind?  Well, it depends.  You may have stomach problems, or heart problems.  You may just want a little superficial nip-and-tuck to make you feel younger.  Or it may be really serious, and a trip to the Emergency Room is in order.  But perhaps, all that’s wrong is an emotional thing, and maybe a therapist is the right one for you.

the Barnes family: Regina, Oliver, Stewart, Lydia, and Ben

In any case, you want to be paging Dr. Barnes… well, at least one of them anyway.  Any of the five will do.  Because they all should provide the best medicine on television:  laughter.

Out of Practice premiered on CBS in the fall of 2005.  It was about the Barnes family, each of whom had gone into the healing arts… and each of whom were comically broken in some way.  Our lead is youngest son Ben (Christopher Gorham), a marriage counselor who fixes relationships, and might be just the thing this busted family needs (if they’d ever give him some respect, instead of treating him as “less” of a doctor because he has a psych degree instead of a biological one).

His parents are divorced, but still tend to their grown children despite their antipathy for each other.  Mother Lydia (Stockard Channing) is a heart specialist with little “heart” of her own, worried more about social-climbing and being a miracle worker than she is about the individuals whose hearts she repairs.  Father Stewart (Henry Winkler) is a gastroenterologist who can’t stomach dealing with the confrontations forced by his family, yet loves them anyway (well, most of them… he and Lydia are still at odds, on principle if for no other reason).

Eldest son Oliver (Ty Burrell) is just as superficial and vain as the women he specializes in “perfecting” with his plastic surgery skills, and would just as soon chase after any of them as work on them; and daughter Regina (Paula Marshall) might beat him in the skirt-chasing, as she’s a lesbian and thrill-seeker who works in the E.R. at the same hospital with her parents.

trying to unite for Ben

Together, there’s a prescription for laughter here that could, with half a chance and a little work, turn out pretty well.  Which means, of course, that it didn’t last all that long.  It wasn’t for lack of trying, though.  The show had an excellent pedigree, with Channing, Winkler, and Marshall being experienced comedy hands in both movies and television.  Gorham and Burrell had great futures waiting after their experience on Out of Practice, showing they also knew what they were doing.  The show was co-created by producer Christopher Lloyd, known on TV for being the comedy mind behind successful series Frasier and Wings.  So, there were definitely people around this show who knew how to land a joke or two.

But those jokes were what needed the doctoring on Out of Practice.  While the actors gave their roles some depth (more than was originally written, really), the actual laugh lines weren’t necessarily fall-down funny.  And that’s being generous.  If you look at modern comedies, and the scripts they use, there had better be a joke on at least every half page (and more near the finish) or the show plays comparatively slowly.  If the jokes aren’t at least good, if not great, the entire thing grinds to an unfortunate halt.

And in Out of Practice, you had five characters who should have had plenty in comedic ammunition, but actually didn’t.  Different styles and practices of medicine may as well be different planets as far as mining laughter, and I would hesitate to hear funny emergency room comments from a plastic surgeon, or marital advice from a gastroenterologist.  Family and professional conflict can create decent drama, and sometimes decent comedy too, but in the case of Out of Practice (at least early on), all it did was kind of grind.

“You work in the ER, dear.  People die there.  You really want that hair to be the last thing they see?”
–Lydia to daughter Regina, with her typical “mom” bluntness

Proud of you (even if you're not a "real" doctor...)

On Out of Practice, it was supposed to be the family creating “the tie that binds”… but it didn’t.  Lydia and Stewart were divorced, a fact which was played up consistently as repeated squabbling (despite the fact that these two people apparently loved each other enough to raise three grown children).  Stewart was trying to have a relationship with his receptionist Crystal (Jennifer Tilly), even though she was the same age as his kids.

Oliver, the plastic surgeon, went through women quickly in both his dating and professional life  (and when you have a character who’s supposed to be shallow, you’re not getting much to dig into).  Daughter Regina wasn’t relating to the family that much either, as she was looking for excitement, both at the ER and in her relationships (and never finding enough).  And that left our central character of Ben who, in the pilot, has his marriage end when his wife leaves him.  While his family tries to rally around to help, we see that it’s really the family that needs him.

But the way the show is presented, the other characters don’t realize this, even if we do.  They’re the broken ones, really, although they think they’re whole.  They’re the individuals who need the tender loving care and help of a doctor the most, and it’s a situation where the idea of “physician, heal thyself” is the one thing these doctors just can’t do.

Now, actors love playing “broken” characters.  Channing was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Lydia on the show.  But while those roles may be excellent drama, audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at a family full of them, especially when the one person who might be able to “fix” them to some degree was the one they gave the least respect to.  The other characters all danced around the fact that they were broken in the first place, and believed Ben wasn’t a “real” doctor anyway… so why would they ever improve?  And if his family didn’t respect Ben, why should we?  It’s hard to root for someone when everyone we see is too preoccupied to listen to him

So, not just the characters, but Out of Practice itself might be in need of medical help.  What to do?

Five different doctors, but we need to heal the show

The concept of a “script doctor” has been around a long time.  These writers’ sole job is, not to plot out stories, but to “punch up” a script, to make it better.  Some are like general doctors,  polishing entire scripts, creating (hopefully) more sparkling dialogue or better transitions and situations.  Others are surgeons, adding humorous lines here and there.  In the specific case of a situation comedy, these “script doctors” are on staff simply to make already plotted stories as funny as possible.

Out of Practice needed a script doctor… stat.

Most modern sitcoms shoot an episode a week, but the finished script for that episode isn’t really “done” until the evening of the shoot… and sometimes, filming is even stopped because a new joke is found on the spot.  Writers go through multiple sets of changes, all in search of better jokes, funnier bits, words and situations that will leap off the page.  Many times, ideas are formed during the rehearsal process, with writers seeing actors on stage and getting a better idea of how things “play” instead of “read”.  Scenes, and sometimes entire scripts, are rewritten to take advantage of these possibilities, and this is where a comedic “script doctor” earns his or her money.  Because they have to be both quick and funny, every time.  These kinds of “script doctors” are rare and valuable people, the ones who can literally be funny on demand, and they get paid a hefty sum to do so… but they’d better produce, or else.  Like a real doctor, they have a show to save, and humor is the medicine used.  And if the patient (show) dies on the table, then lots of people are out of jobs.

"Hello? Give me something funny here!"

Sometimes, a mid-episode rewrite (or multiple rewrites) aren’t enough.  Significant changes have to be made, and shows are taken off the air while producers, writers, and cast all try to hash out possible ways to become funnier, better, more watchable.  This happened in the spring of 2006 with Out of Practice.  But sometimes, despite the best efforts of all, the patient is just not able to be saved.

CBS tried to work with the show.  It ran from September 2005 until March of 2006, when it was replaced (for what was supposed to be only a short time) by The New Adventures of Old Christine, starring Seinfeld veteran Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Old Christine garnered a significant ratings bump compared to Out of Practice, which had been replaced temporarily to try to “fix” some of the perceived problems it had attracting viewers.  After the numbers came in, CBS simply decided to go with the new show rather than try to heal the previous one.  The network pulled the plug, and Out of Practice never returned, leaving eight episodes unaired in its network run.

CHRISTOPHER GORHAM (Ben Barnes) has starred in numerous series, including Popular, Odyssey 5, Jake 2.0, and Harper’s Island.  He played boyfriend Henry to Ugly Betty, and is currently seen on the USA series Covert Affairs.  An incurable romantic, he proposed to his college sweetheart after a picnic outside Tiffany’s on Rodeo Drive, just before going in to pick out rings.

STOCKARD CHANNING (Lydia Barnes) is a veteran of stage and screen, known to a generation as Rizzo in the movie version of Grease.  She played First Lady Abigail Bartlett on The West Wing, as well as starring in two short-lived self-titled situation comedies (The Stockard Channing Show and Stockard Channing in Just Friends).  She’s appeared on Broadway numerous times, in the musicals Pal Joey and They’re Playing Our Song, and dramas The Lion in Winter and Six Degrees of Separation.

HENRY WINKLER (Stewart Barnes) essayed television icon Arthur Fonzarelli, better known as Fonzie, on the classic sitcom Happy Days.  He also did a turn as a lawyer in the cult TV hit Arrested Development.  He branched out into television producing, as one of the creative minds behind the long-running MacGyver.  Diagnosed with dyslexia, he’s co-written children’s books featuring the character Hank Zipzer (also dyslexic), a 4th grader characterized as “the world’s greatest underachiever”.

TY BURRELL (Oliver Barnes) was a regular on Back to You, also created by Christopher Lloyd.  His major claim to fame is on the current smash Modern Family, where he’s garnered Emmy nominations each of the past two years for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy.

PAULA MARSHALL (Regina Barnes) has been featured on this site previously for her work in the original Cupid (1998).  A TV veteran whose closest thing to a hit was the two-season Gary Unmarried, she nonetheless has been a regular actress in half a dozen series and a recurring character in many more.  She may get the chance to try again this fall in a new Fox comedy called Little in Common.

JENNIFER TILLY (Crystal) is a multi-talented star, with an Oscar nomination (for Bullets Over Broadway) and stage credits (The Women, a Broadway show that was taped and later shown on PBS).  She’s lent her voice to numerous projects, including Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (and its upcoming sequel, Monsters University), the Chucky horror series, and TV’s animated Family Guy.  She’s an accomplished poker player, having earned a silver bracelet for winning an open event at the World Series of Poker, beating out 600 players there.

The show is available on Netflix for viewing online, and numerous episodes are posted on YouTube.  Although there were places where the series was lacking, you can see possibilities along the way, and how the show grew with time.  The performance of Stockard Channing is worthy of her nomination, even if some of the early scripts weren’t the best possible vehicles for her and the rest of the cast.  Given the setup, and some of the later tinkering, the show actually ended up pretty good…

the family that laughs together

… but it was just too late.  Audiences just really didn’t tune into Out of Practice.  The show lost a pretty good size of the audience from its lead-in series, although it did finish second in its time slot (only behind ABC’s farewell season of Monday Night Football).  Perhaps the reason it didn’t continue really was the “doctor” process after all.  When Out of Practice took a break to “heal”, The New Adventures of Old Christine gained a million viewers more than Out of Practice had produced in the time slot.  CBS simply went with a show that apparently was more popular… leaving another to fade away.

But things like that happen all the time in television.  Shows are saved through heroic measures (ask any Chuck fan about Subway sandwiches and you’ll see what I mean).  Shows also die for the most absurd reasons (be it petulant actors or just whims of the powers-that-be).  It’s kind of like life, in that you really can’t predict with any certainty whether a show will die quickly or run forever… but with the right doctor in your corner, the odds get a little bit better.

Vital Stats

14 aired episodes — 8 unaired — all available online
CBS Network
First aired episode:  September 19, 2005
Final aired episode:  March 29, 2006
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Mondays at 9:30/8:30, between Two and a Half Men and CSI: Miami.  Both of these shows were in the top 20 that year, Out of Practice didn’t make the top 30.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

A young off-duty New York cabbie spots a pretty girl on the street, trying to hire a ride.  Intrigued, he decides he’s now “on duty” and stops for her.  She likes the guy too, and after a few “meet cute” visuals, she exits at the school where she teaches.  That afternoon, as she leaves, guess what cab (and what cabbie) is waiting for her?  Before anyone can say “musical montage”, we see scenes of a young couple newly in love, kissing sweetly.  Then, unfortunately, the following exchange occurs:

Bridget meets Bernie

“You know, this is crazy.  I don’t even know your full name!”

“Bernie… Steinberg.  What’s yours?”

“Bridget.  Bridget… Teresa… Mary… Colleen… Fitzgerald.”

“I think we have a problem….”

–the first actual lines in the pilot episode of Bridget Loves Bernie

Such is the set-up for one of the more popular romantic comedies of the early 1970’s, Bridget Loves Bernie.  It was a tumultuous time in America, with the ending of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the fall of the Nixon Presidency.  Public opinion was changing on lots of things, both political and societal, and in the midst of this change came a romantic comedy about two people deeply in love… and their families, who were as opposite as they could be.

“The important thing is for us not to over-react.”
–Bridget’s father to her mother, about to meet Bernie

Bridget (Meredith Baxter) was a schoolteacher from a rich Catholic home.  Her parents Walter and Amy (played by TV vets David Doyle and Audra Lindley, respectively) were very traditional stock, and despite the quote above, they’re very good at over-reacting.  They really only accept Bernie (and his Jewish faith) because it seems a lesser difficulty than their initial fear of Bridget bringing home an African-American (or, as Amy puts it in the vernacular of the time, “colored”).  They try to put on a brave face, but make just about every possible “enlightened” mistake they could make along the way.  Their efforts of acceptance make walking on eggshells look easy.

Of course, if the Fitzgeralds have eggshells, the Steinbergs make omelets.  Sam and Sophie Steinberg (Harold J. Stone and Bibi Osterwald) own a deli, and are a bit awed by the wealth of the Fitzgeralds.  We meet them (and their underdog attitudes) as they arrive at the Fitzgeralds, looking for a missing Bernie.  Bridget is also missing, and so the opposing families are united in their worry.  The only things they agree on are the safety of their children, and that their relationship should be stopped before it starts….

That’s kind of difficult when Bridget and Bernie have taken matters into their own hands.  They were missing due to having an appointment at the courthouse, and their civil marriage ceremony.  Even with no priest for the Fitzgeralds or rabbi for the Steinbergs, Bridget and Bernie are still married (a fact the parents will now have to get used to).  Although it’s too late for the parents to stop the wedding, they’ll still interfere in their own ways.

Bridget and Bernie do have some allies in all this.  Bridget’s brother Michael (Robert Sampson) is a priest, but is likely one of the more level-headed members of this bunch (and understanding of the relationship).  Bernie’s uncle Moe (Ned Glass) is a guy for whom religion is important, but practicality and people will trump it every time.  And finally, we have the couple’s friend Otis (William Elliott), who shares cab-driving duties with Bernie.  Otis happens to be the African-American initially mistaken for Bridget’s beau, giving a friendly perspective on the trials the young couple is going through.

Living above the deli in Bernie’s small apartment, Bridget Loves Bernie uses the marriage, and the families and friends, to examine many of the social issues of the day.  Religious differences, political alignments, social classes, racial prejudices, and pretty much every other disparate point of view are on display here.  The surprising part is, this wasn’t new news, even in 1972.

Broadway cast of Abie's Irish Rose, 1927

“Showing that the Jews and the Irish crack equally old jokes.”
–theatre critic commenting on Abie’s Irish Rose

Bridget Loves Bernie is primarily based on an old Broadway play called Abie’s Irish Rose from the 1920’s.  Made twice into a movie (and forming the basis for more), the critics thought the show was rehashing old ideas and prejudices even then.  The play was, however, a popular success, setting (at the time) the record for the longest running Broadway show EVER.  It was also made into a radio series, running for two and a half years.  Audiences loved the idea of feuding families, as the concept had likely been around even longer (say, Romeo and Juliet?)

You would think, especially after the turbulent ’60’s, America might accept such a television series.  After all, the success of CBS’s previous season hit All in the Family (and its groundbreaking use of the Archie Bunker character) likely meant the audience was more than ready for such a comedy.  Bridget Loves Bernie was slotted in the half-hour immediately following All in the Family, and achieved enough viewer interest to become a top 5 success on all of television for the season.

But success brings attention, and attention sometimes brings controversy.  Archie Bunker was, for most people, lovably WRONG in his attitudes, demonstrably so.  Most watching All in the Family agreed.  But when Bridget Loves Bernie presented, in a bit more realistic way, disagreements many families were currently dealing with (prominently featuring religion as a sticking point), all of a sudden tradition, religion, and faith take on a slightly different color.

People get blind spots when discussing religion; more so than many other personal positions.  It tends to define much of who we are as individuals, as family, as class.  Religion, sometimes more than ethnic background, forms the basis of identity, and when we see it (supposedly) tossed away by our youth, over-reactions are common.  It is no wonder that the Steinbergs and the Fitzgeralds argue, as the relationship seems to threaten their own life-identities… or, at the very least, the identities they had believed true for their own son or daughter.

But here’s the big difference, one which was true in Romeo and Juliet, in Abie’s Irish Rose, in Bridget Loves Bernie, and even today.  RELIGION IS NOT FAITH.  Bridget truly loves Bernie, not in spite of his being Jewish, but because he’s Bernie, and that encompasses everything about him, including the fact that he and his family are Jewish.  Bernie does the same, loving Bridget (and, by extension, her family) for everything she is.  Both of them do so, allowing for their parents misconceptions and misunderstandings, for the sake of each other.

Bridget and Bernie, bridging the gaps

Love is that strong.  Faith is that strong.  Religion, on the other hand, is just rules, made by others, for the practice of faith.  But true belief, in each other, and in whatever supreme being you may have, is what makes faith real, concrete, and part of our lives.  Religion is just the (sometimes unnecessary) trappings thereof.  Bridget, Bernie, and their friends and families, learn to live beyond religion, but not beyond faith.  Your faith does not, and never will, threaten mine… and mine will never threaten yours, if we can simply agree to have both love and faith.

Some people had problems with this, as tightly woven the concept of religion was in their lives.  It was the same way with Abie and Rose’s parents, and the same with Bridget and Bernie’s, at least at first.  But some didn’t let go of this idea, and were outraged that they were somehow being portrayed as “wrong” on television (they weren’t… that’s the blind spot).  Encouraged by religious leaders, complaint letters were sent to the network (even by people who’d never sampled the show), and although the series was extremely popular, CBS got tired very quickly of all the negative publicity.

Despite all this, the show was hugely popular.  As I said, during its one and only season Bridget Loves Bernie was the #5 rated show on television… and thanks to the pressure campaign, it was still canceled.  These days, corporate masters would simply say all the right things and placate those who generated a disproportionate response, and keep Bridget Loves Bernie on the air.  And, as much as I would love to say the show would be kept on for the right reasons, it would be kept on only for the money it would generate… which tells you about the type of “faith” television networks believe in these days.  But at least the series would have continued, and positive messages of love and belief might have triumphed over blind spots and over-reaction.

Bridget Loves Bernie was that rare show that tackled topical subjects with a heart… and its heart was broken.  I would like to hope that people can find a way past their differences if love is truly in their hearts… and at the very least, understand and allow for differences along the way.  This is true for families, and just as true for strangers along the way.  Messages are more important that individual shows.  Allowing others to love, in their own way, harming no one else, is the message I will always have faith in.

Bridget:  “Our poor parents.  We chose each other.  It’s going to be tough on them.”

Bernie:  “I wouldn’t worry.  We’re going to be there to help them through the rough spots.”

MEREDITH BAXTER (Bridget Teresa Mary Colleen Fitzgerald Steinberg) had success early, as she’d been in the television business less than two years when she was cast as Bridget.  In 1976 she became a supporting member of the cast of Family, earning two Emmy nominations for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama.  Her most popular role was as Elyse Keaton in Family Ties, which ran for seven seasons.  She’s the author of Untied:  A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering, which discusses her life amid alcoholism, breast cancer, and her decision to openly declare her homosexuality.

DAVID BIRNEY (Bernie Steinberg) has earned Broadway credits, appearing in Amadeus and Man and Superman, in addition to numerous other stage roles in major theatres across the country.  He’s starred in a number of TV series, including Serpico and St. Elsewhere.  He’s best known on television for roles in various miniseries, including a star turn in the early American drama The Adams Chronicles.

DAVID DOYLE (Walter Fitzgerald) is a television veteran, guesting on numerous series.  As the featured male on Charlie’s Angels, he was surrounded by beautiful women on a regular basis (yet still shone enough to earn himself an Emmy nomination).  In his later years, he specialized in voice-over acting for many animated series, until his death in 1997 due to a heart attack.

AUDRA LINDLEY (Amy Fitzgerald) played many years on two soap operas, Search for Tomorrow and Another World, before making it to prime time with Bridget Loves Bernie (where she was nominated for a Golden Globe).  She reached stardom in her memorable portrayal of Mrs. Roper in Three’s Company, although the spin-off featuring her character not as successful.  She continued acting in recurring parts on both Friends and Cybil, until her death in 1997 at the age of 79 (supposedly with her next Cybil script on the table next to her!)

HAROLD T. STONE (Sam Steinberg) found Broadway fame as a young man, appearing on the Great White Way in 1939.  A few years later, he headed west and found a film career as a steadily working actor in movies.  He found his niche in the early days of television, appearing in well over 150 different shows.  He was a regular on My World and Welcome to It as well as Bridget Loves Bernie, but was best known for the many tough-guy guest roles he played on ’60’s and ’70’s series.  He passed in 2005 at the age of 94.

BIBI OSTERWALD (Sophie Steinberg) never achieved stardom, but in her lengthy career she did perform guest roles in series such as Route 66, All in the Family, Remington Steele, and Home Improvement.  One of her favorite roles was Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly, where she once was understudy to famed dancer Ginger Rogers.  She died of lung disease in 2002.

ROBERT SAMPSON (Father Michael Fitzgerald) was a surprising choice for comedy in Bridget Loves Bernie, considering in most of his career he’s been featured in dramatic roles.  He appeared on many early TV series, including the original Twilight Zone, Bonanza, and Combat!  After Bridget Loves Bernie, he was seen on Police Story, Falcon Crest, Matlock, and Profiler.  He was also featured in the cult horror film Re-Animator, in a significant enough role that he still makes convention appearances to this day.

NED GLASS (Uncle “Moe” Plotnick) made a career out of playing slightly disreputable small-time crooks, usually for laughs.  He played opposite comedic legends like The Three Stooges, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, and Phil Silvers.  He was nominated for an Emmy for his role in Julia, and performed with everyone from Elvis Presley and Jack Lemmon to Herbie, the Love Bug.  He passed, after a lengthy illness, in 1984.

WILLIAM ELLIOTT (Otis Foster) was a recurring character on Adam-12, but other than his role on Bridget Loves Bernie, he’s best known for his roughly eight-year marriage (and later divorce) to Grammy-winning singer Dionne Warwick.  Elliott died in 1983 at the age of 49.

Bridget Loves Bernie has never been available on DVD.  Two episodes are available on YouTube, including the pilot, where you’ll also find the appropriately titled theme song, “Love is Crazy”.  Bridget Loves Bernie holds the distinction of being the highest rated full season show ever canceled by one of the big three networks (finishing at #5 for the year), and in this day of money and corporate decision-making, it’s doubtful that record will ever be broken.  There has been a multitude of information written about the subsequent marriage and eventual break-up (and further reasons for it) between the show’s stars, Meredith Baxter and David Birney, but this website is NOT the place for such intensely personal discourse.  Quite honestly, the themes of the show are much bigger, and so they are the focus of this article.

We love you, too.

One would like to think that, in our modern, more enlightened (?) times, the types of differences examined in Bridget Loves Bernie would no longer be prominent.  Mixed marriages of religion, not to mention race, are becoming much more commonplace, and for many don’t even rate a mention, let alone an argument.  And yet, newer disagreements are taking place all across the land, for many of the same reasons.  The fight for gender equality and the rights of civil, let alone religious, marriage for same-sex couples divides many families and households.  The depiction of Catholic vs. Jew seems almost quaint for some… and yet for others it is a difference causing permanent separation between loved ones.  The battles are old.  Just the fighters are new.

And yet, here’s the common thing, the one thing that gives me hope all along the way.  Love wins out, every time.  Only those who close their hearts and cling to rules instead of humanity lose, and they do it only by their own choice.  There’s a reason the show was called Bridget Loves Bernie… and it’s because, after all is said and done, it is not religion, or social class, or anything else that matters.  The only thing that matters is love….

Vital Stats

24 aired episodes — none unaired
CBS Network
First aired episode:  September 16, 1972 (the day before CBS aired the first episode of M*A*S*H)
Final aired episode:  March 3, 1973 (no pre-emptions — you don’t pre-empt a hit)
Aired at Friday, 8/7 Central?  Saturdays, 8:30, 7:30 Central.  A year later, this Saturday night became the best night of television on television, with the five shows airing on CBS all making Time Magazine’s list of the best 100 TV shows in historyBridget Loves Bernie, if it had survived, could easily have been there too.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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