“When I was a child, my parents knew I wasn’t going to grow up, so they decided I should grow first. They put me out to sea to work as a cabin boy. But I missed my childhood. It’s during childhood you learn the important things in life — the wonders of life should never be missed or hated.”
–Simon McKay, also known as The Wizard
There’s a certain wonder and innocence that can be lost as we grow up. Children know it, but some adults forget it far too easily. It’s that magic that comes with being able to see the world with new eyes every day, to be amazed at what far too many people take for granted… and to remember that, in the best kind of world, there’s no place for cynicism when there’s a much better way. Sometimes we just need reminding of those types of things. That’s the job of The Wizard.
A breath of fresh air, The Wizard aired on CBS in the Fall of 1986 and featured David Rappaport as Simon McKay, possibly one of the most unique heroes of any prime-time series. While he wasn’t possessed of any otherworldly magic spells or anything like that, he was possessed of the most magical gifts of all–a tremendous heart, an inquisitive mind, and an inventive imagination.
Simon had been one of the chief scientific minds for a US government spy agency and an expert on weapons and other systems, but dropped completely out of sight for half a decade… only to resurface as a toy maker, creating amazing scientific gadgets and granting wishes to children. The agency occasionally calls on Simon for help, but Simon will only cooperate on his own terms, as there are some things he just won’t do. His focus is now on helping people with his creations and his intellect, not on the covert and competitive nature of countries and spies. If he can do what he wants and, at the same time, help on an occasional mission, everyone’s happy. Well, almost everyone….
“When the best intelligence agencies in the world can’t find someone… he’s vanished. But Simon McKay turned up. He won’t say where he was, and at the moment that doesn’t matter. I don’t care if he is one of Santa’s elves… he’s also the inventive genius of our time. So you make damn sure you don’t let him fall in the wrong hands.”
–instructions to Alex Jaeger on his new role as Simon McKay’s bodyguard
Some want Simon’s creative mind for nefarious purposes, and that’s where Alex Jaeger (Douglas Barr) comes in. He’s assigned by the agency to protect McKay and his genius from those forces which might try to use him against others. Alex feels (at first) like this is some kind of punishment. He’s more of a confrontational type, the brawn to Simon’s brains. They develop an alliance and a friendship over time, and Alex starts to learn from Simon what the wonder of life is all about.
“Why sail away in search of adventure… when it lives right here?”
Simon is also aided by Tillie Russell (Fran Ryan), his housekeeper and long-time friend. Spending her life on the sea, Tillie knew Simon when he was a youthful cabin boy, and the two are reunited after Tillie runs into trouble. When she suspects the new owner of her ship is involved in some illegal and dangerous smuggling, Simon and Alex come to save the day. Tillie then decides to jump ship and join her old friend Simon and her new one Alex, leaving the seas to watch over both of them like a mother-hen. Of course, that doesn’t stop them all from finding trouble… or from trouble finding them.
Between helping those in need with Simon’s amazing inventions or occasionally being called on to help the government in some unique way, the lives of Simon, Alex, and Tillie were never boring. While the adventures of the trio may have taken them from the lost city of El Dorado in South America to the streets of Hong Kong, many of the most surprising things happened in Simon’s own workshop. He built radio helicopters than were controlled with just a person’s thoughts, and magnetic yo-yo’s that could do tricks without strings attached. His gadgets could pull apart steel bars (allowing them to escape imprisonment by the bad guys) and replace live animals with robotic dogs as seeing-eye companions for the blind. Surprisingly, although this show sounds a bit like a fantasy, it definitely was not.
“The company that builds some of these models also makes robotics for handicapped people. We’re doing fiction and here’s fact just beyond what we’re doing.”
Did the show seem fantastical? Perhaps at times. But most everything was based on real science with a dash of added wonder, giving The Wizard an imaginative feel. The show tried very hard to straddle that line between “over-the-top” and “heightened reality”, making a unique viewing experience for all. Perhaps the most unique feature was the star of The Wizard, David Rappaport.
“You’re getting in over your head, Simon.”
“Alex, most things in life are over my head.”
–Alex and Simon as they plan another escapade
Rappaport stood only 3-feet 11-inches tall, hardly the typical television hero. The title role of The Wizard was specifically created for him after producer Michael Berk had seen his performance in the movie Time Bandits. (Rappaport’s musical ability was incorporated into the series, which showed McKay’s use of playing the drums as a means of focusing his thinking.) Rappaport was also given significant creative input into the series, making certain his character was seen as more than just a curiosity. Simon McKay was a role model, someone who could be looked up to no matter what the height of the people involved.
Rappaport believed strongly that the world could be a much more positive place, and that television and the media had a responsibility to portray those kinds of adventures. Simon McKay was shown as a force for good, but not through muscular strength or physical prowess. His power was through his mind and imagination, and through his thirst for creativity and adventure. The goal was never a character’s desire to punish those who did wrong, although that was sometimes necessary. The goal was to create in each and every person the sense of wonder available in all of us, to encourage a way of looking at the world without cynicism and negativity. This world-view of Simon McKay is what made The Wizard a very special and amazing show, one that is well-remembered twenty-five years later.
“Anyone can be a fool five minutes in a day. Wisdom comes from knowing when not to exceed the limit.”
Television isn’t usually like this, and audiences in general weren’t the most sympathetic. Selling the show was difficult, because it just wasn’t the typical show, and therefore not the most popular either. It appealed (like most shows) to those viewers who were already somewhat disposed to the ideas presented, and while the fan following it developed was very devoted, The Wizard also had the misfortune to be initially scheduled as part of a weak CBS Tuesday line-up against three of the top fifteen shows on television (Who’s the Boss?, Growing Pains, and Matlock). With a new time-slot, the show might have had a chance to survive… except the time it was ultimately moved to turned out to be Thursdays against the top two shows on television (The Cosby Show and Family Ties). All the hopes, dreams, and good ideas in the world weren’t going to gather large enough audiences quickly enough….
British-born Rappaport came from England, which is half a world away from Hollywood both in terms of geography and point-of-view. His thoughts on television at the time:
“The attitude in England is different. We don’t have ratings. We do have surveys but not so dogmatic as over here. It’s not a do-or-die thing. Too much emphasis on the ratings encourages the worst sort of shows. So much television is the United States is wasted. You could do so many good things. Television spent years celebrating drugs, now they suddenly realize they have to stop it. It must be used to do what is right.”
Television could learn something from David Rappaport….
The Wizard lasted 19 episodes and only one season from September to March. While CBS tried to show some faith in the series by airing it relatively consistently, the combined existence of extremely heavy competition and a rather unconventional premise led to it ending that Spring. But the one thing a network could never end is the spirit of adventure, imagination, and curiosity developed together by Simon, Alex, Tillie, and every single viewer of the show. That’s always a part of each and every one of us. Simon said it best:
“Your mind is much stronger than you can imagine. All you have to do is set it free….”
–Simon McKay, The Wizard
DAVID RAPPAPORT (Simon McKay) was a tremendous actor both here in the US and in his native England. His passion for performing and touching others’ lives shone in movies like Time Bandits, The Goodies, and The Bride (and he was offered the role of R2D2 in Star Wars but turned it down only because he didn’t want to act in the robot costume). Television roles included appearances on L.A. Law (in a recurring role), Mr. Belvedere, and Hooperman. He also has a writing credit for one episode of The Wizard (as well as contributing to other episodes), and the character of Simon McKay was said to be very close to David’s own personality. He was musically adept at drums, harmonica, accordion, piano, and trumpet, and loved to share his gifts with all. He left us in 1990, a large talent that is sorely missed.
DOUGLAS BARR (Alex Jaeger) is best known as Lee Majors’ television sidekick for five seasons on The Fall Guy, as well as a recurring part on Designing Women. He also contributed a story for an episode of The Wizard (everyone on this show really cared about it) and has focused on directorial efforts over the last decade or more, earning a Director’s Guild nomination for his 2010 NBC tv-movie Secrets of the Mountain.
FRAN RYAN (Tillie Russell) was a frequent guest actress on many TV comedies dating all the way back to the mid-’60’s. She appeared on episodes of The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies, and had a recurring role on Green Acres as “mom” to Arnold Ziffel, the pig that was treated like a person! Numerous light dramatic shows followed in the ’70’s, including Columbo, Starsky and Hutch, and Charlie’s Angels. She continued performing onscreen until the age of 75, and passed away in 2000.
While The Wizard has yet to be released on DVD (a travesty if there ever was one), there is an active campaign to do so. Details of that, plus one of the very best sites out there concerning a long-forgotten series, can be found at the official fansite for The Wizard. It also includes items from Executive Producer Michael Berk and a video about the work towards a DVD release from Rappaport’s good friend, British actor Nabil Shaban. I recommend it highly, and I support their efforts. You can spend hours on that one site alone, discovering both The Wizard and the career of David Rappaport, and I encourage all to do so.
“But I think the real secret of this show is the heart. The real human values. The hero is powerful but he’s also vulnerable. The message of the show is that you can overcome things through non-violence. My size works on many levels.”
Cynicism is so much a part of television (and many people on either side of the screen) they don’t even realize it at times. Our own lives, as well as the lives of characters on far too many shows. are led with a jaundiced eye and suspicion of others. Fortunately, every once in a while a show like The Wizard and a character like Simon McKay comes along to remind us all of a better way. Through Simon, we can see the wonder, the surprise, the simple joy that life can bring on a daily basis if we just set aside that cynical mindset and embrace a better point of view. We are all graced with the ability to imagine, to think, to become better, if we only remember to use that ability instead of listening to the overly competitive, critical world. That’s what The Wizard himself said he did for anyone who would hear:
“What I do is far more important than any covert operation.”
“All right, Simon. What is it that you do?”
“I keep magic alive….”
Something we all can do….
(A personal aside: The Wizard was chosen specifically for one of the most special people in my life, whose birthday is this week. He turned seven during the airing of this show, the perfect age to discover and encourage his imagination. I’m so very glad he discovered both the show and his own gifts, and he continues to use that imagination with joy and wonder each and every day. My life would be far less without those things in it. Please follow his (and Simon’s) example and do the same.)
19 aired episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: September 9, 1986
Last aired episode: March 12, 1987
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? The hour is right, the days are wrong. The Wizard premiered on Tuesdays, but was shifted to Thursdays in December of 1986. Airing in the 8/7 Central slot worked, because this was one of the best family shows ever. Too bad not all the parents got it!
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.