“I actually had dinner with William Goldman and picked his brain about The Princess Bride before I did Wizards. The Princess Bride was my favorite book.”
–Executive Producer/Creator Don Reo
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
8 episodes aired — none unaired — Not yet available on DVD (but there ARE rumors!!)
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.