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Strange Luck

Chance:  “Things don’t always turn out the way I plan.  Things happen to me.  Lucky things.  Good, bad… it doesn’t matter.  I’m always there.  Rescuing people, winning the lottery.  If I go into a restaurant, somebody chokes.  If I go into a bank, it gets robbed.  My car’s had so many wrecks, you’d think it was magnetic.”

Dr. Richter:  “And you being apprehended, standing over a wounded police officer holding a gun, that was just one of those things?”

Chance:  “Do you smell smoke?”

Chance Harper

Viewers (and television writers) had the good fortune to be favored with Strange Luck on our TV screens in the fall of 1995.  It told the unusual story of Alex Saunders… or at least, that was his birth name.  At an early age, young Alex was apparently the sole survivor of an airplane crash that killed all aboard, including his family.  His foster parents gave him a new name, Chance Harper (D.B. Sweeney), due to his amazing survival.  But what he has to deal with in his life is stranger than they could have imagined, and goes far beyond what anyone would call “luck”.

Things happen to Chance.  I mean, a LOT of things happen to Chance, positive and negative.  He’s the walking example of the old Chinese blessing/curse, “May you live in interesting times.”  He’ll check his bank balance and find that there’s suddenly $2 million dollars there… and then discover that it’s mob money, and now the mob is after him.  A great many of us get the occasional ding in our car, but Chance’s car has a dent from falling airline poop.  It’s just his Strange Luck.

“Push your luck.  If you see a pretty girl in a bar, say something.  If your luck is good, magic can happen.  And if it’s bad?  You deal with her boyfriend when he gets out of the bathroom.”
–actor D.B. Sweeney, on the role of luck in his own life

Some of the other people in Chance’s life are aware of all this.  Chance works as a freelance photographer (and wouldn’t you sell some pictures, considering the range of amazing things that seem to happen all around?)  His editor at the Chronicle, Audrey Westin (Pamela Gidley) also happens to be his ex-girlfriend, unable to constantly deal with Chance’s unusual life, but more than happy to use it for the sake of her job (and to throw a little money Chance’s way when necessary).  She’s not unhappy with Chance, she would just like a bit more “normal” in her life than a serious relationship with Chance would bring.  Knowing his propensities, she also has to remind him “Don’t get sidetracked”, but that doesn’t stop him.

Chance and his three women

There’s also Angie (Frances Fisher), the waitress down at the Blue Plate Diner where Chance hangs out.  There could be something starting between the two of them, but again, with Chance’s luck, it could be love or it could be an accidentally poisoned sandwich, and he’d never see which one was coming until it was too late.

Dealing with this kind of life is rather stressful, so Chance also has another outlet.  After 23 arrests and no convictions (that’s what happens when you end up in the wrong place at the right time), he comes to the attention of Dr. Ann Richter (Cynthia Martells), a criminal psychologist who takes an interest in his Strange Luck.

After she puts him under hypnosis, he discovers lost memories of his brother Eric, mysteriously taken from the family just before the plane crash.  He later discovers Eric may hold some clues to both that fateful event, and to the rather weird patterns of his life… if only Chance can find him.

“I’d love to sleep nights, like other people.  Get a normal job.  Get married, have kids.  The whole boring thing.  But it’s not going to happen until my luck runs out.”
–Chance Harper

Chance didn’t ask for this kind of life, but that’s what he’s been dealt, and while he doesn’t necessarily go looking for trouble, it finds him anyway.  In most “franchise” shows, like the typical lawyer, cop, or doctor series, stories come from the clients/crooks/patients that come through the door on a regular basis.  In Strange Luck, stories come to Chance as well, but they can take the most unusual routes possible to get there, and it’s still all part of the show if you accept the initial premise.  (There’s one episode that concerns itself with a potato shaped like the image of Elvis Presley’s head.  No, really.  And it’s a pretty good episode, despite the almost ridiculous idea.)  This is a gold mine for television writers, as suddenly most of the regular rules of television fly right out the window.

Good television writing requires rules of the road, so to speak.  Characters must face some type of jeopardy or emotional crisis just before every commercial (to entice the audience to stick around through the ads), so much of the previous script is devoted to leading up to that event.  Similarly, a new character can’t just show up at the end of the story to present necessary evidence in a mystery, or the audience feels cheated.  The world of a particular series is a fairly predictable place, unless you’ve established it as science fiction or fantasy, and even then certain rules are created for that universe.  With Strange Luck, the only rule needed was that, around Chance, anything could happen… and probably did.

Jeopardy?  Easy, a shooter shows up at a car crash Chance has discovered, while passing by, which leads to Chance being mistakenly arrested instead.  That final clue to the mystery?  Again, Chance finds that clue through the least likely person, someone Chance may have met, but through completely different (and entirely unrelated) circumstances.  You can have almost anything happen as long as Chance is in the vicinity, no matter how unlikely… the simple fact that he has a 1 in 7 chance of winning the lottery instead of 1 in a million doesn’t mean he’s a millionaire, it means that something will likely happen to the money long before he could spend it anyway, so he doesn’t even try anymore.  He’s got other things to deal with… all the time, it seems.

“The whole notion of when you get in a car accident, and you think to yourself, if I had just been taking ten seconds more getting out the door, I wouldn’t have been going through that intersection at that moment.  What is that about?  Why was I there at that instant? Then when you find yourself in a situation like that, what’s your responsibility?  I think everybody has those moments in their life that make them think about ‘Why am I here on this planet?’  For Chance, those moments just come up every episode.  That’s sort of the snapshots of this life that we’re taking, when things get really interesting.”
Strange Luck creator Karl Schaefer

“If I see a situation where somebody’s needs help, I get involved.  I don’t think about it.  I just do it.”
–Chance, after saving a woman jumping off a building… by jumping with her.

Ordinary characters don’t get network television shows.  That’s why Schaefer created Chance Harper.  Strange Luck was far beyond ordinary, and so was Schaefer.  He was an executive producer on Eerie, Indiana (mentioned in passing on Strange Luck, as Chance had occasionally sold photos to the Eerie Examiner, the town paper in that series).  He later went on to produce the first season of the quirky Eureka, as well as being instrumental in production of both The Dead Zone and Ghost Whisperer.  If anyone could do weird or strange and make it work, it would be Schaefer.  Besides, he had personal experience.  He can tell the story….

“On the way driving from the airport into the office, upon arriving in Vancouver the first day I got in an accident.  I’ve been attacked by a naked psychopath and battled with him for 45 minutes while on the phone with Grant Tinker.  Pulled a woman off a bridge who was trying to jump onto the Santa Ana Freeway.  Saw a woman drowning in the Los Angeles riverbed, some friends and I.  We weren’t able to save her but we saved a companion of hers.  Just, you know, things happen to me.  I’ve probably dialed 911 more times than just about anybody in L.A.  I have an office on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga that is actually in the building that Raymond Chandler put Phillip Marlowe’s office in.  It looks right down Hollywood Boulevard, and I wrote at night for years.  Sometimes, I would call 911 two or three times in a night, just going, “Yeah, there’s another woman screaming out there on the corner.”  I think that’s what drove me to write this idea, is like wondering why does anything happen to anybody.  What is that about?  Life.  There’s a million little coincidences that we all swing through everyday; and if you take every one and spin it towards yourself and say, is this something I need to get involved in?  Is this something I’m responsible for?  Then, you know, you’re going to get involved in a lot more strange occurrences and incidents.”

And you thought Strange Luck was about a fictional character?  Not a chance….

D.B. SWEENEY (Chance Harper) has been featured in numerous recurring roles on TV, appearing in Jericho, Life as We Know It, Now and Again, Harsh Realm, Criminal Minds, and The Event.  His movie roles include stellar performances in Eight Men Out and The Cutting Edge.  His newest projects are starring in a TNT pilot (currently filming) called Brain Trust, and creating a website called Letters from Hollywood which supports the US troops overseas with messages of encouragement and thanks.

FRANCES FISHER (Angie) has had an eclectic and varied career, appearing in two Oscar winning Best Picture movies (Titanic and Unforgiven), numerous TV series (Eureka, The Mentalist, Becker, The Shield), and starring in theatre productions in New York and Los Angeles too numerous to mention here.  She has been on the board of the Screen Actors Guild, and portrayed TV legend Lucille Ball in the TV biopic Lucy & Desi:  Before the Laughter.

PAMELA GIDLEY (Audrey Westin) first found fame winning the title of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” from the Wilhemina Modeling Agency in 1985.  She played regular and recurring roles in Tour of Duty, CSI, The Pretender, and Skin.  She also had a featured role in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks prequel Fire Walk with Me.

CYNTHIA MARTELLS (Dr. Anne Richter) is a Tony nominee for August Wilson’s Two Trains Running on Broadway, and was a regular on another loved but short-lived series Veritas:  The Quest.  She was originally a pre-law student before catching the acting bug, which led to her being admitted to the prestigious fine arts program at Rutgers University and a long string of New York theatre parts, on and off Broadway.

Fate's long shadow

Strange Luck was designed to be a companion piece to the previous season’s The X-Files, which aired immediately after it.  Luck even referenced that show indirectly, with a message to Chance from his brother Eric that, should anything strange happen to him, Chance should call an Agent Mulder at the FBI.  I’m not sure the phone would ever stop ringing….

As a TV series, Strange Luck has its own good and bad karma (of course).  It was one of the highest rated shows that ever aired on FOX in the Friday 8/7 Central time slot, and yet didn’t see a second season.  The series was blessed with music by artists like Sarah McLachlan, Loreena McKennit, Sinead O’Connor, and John Lee Hooker… so of course there’s no DVD available (let alone a soundtrack), most likely because of the costs record labels charge for music rights.  The episodes are available in chunked form on YouTube, but you can tell that these are taped broadcast copies, with occasional drop-outs and somewhat messy edits in and out of commercial breaks… but at least they’re there.  The Unofficial Strange Luck homepage has some decent information, but links there to a number of other Strange Luck sites are dead, so again it’s a win/lose situation.  Even my own experience in researching and writing about Strange Luck has been both blessed and cursed, because normally with these articles I have an abundance of pictures to choose from and very few quotes available, and Strange Luck seems to be the opposite.  The limited number of pictures from a full-season show that aired in 1995 is almost unheard of.  (I had more to choose from for 1978’s The Paper Chase and 1966’s The Green Hornet in the last couple of weeks….)

But then, maybe that’s what Strange Luck actually celebrates… the improbable, the unusual, those occurrences that each of us only notices occasionally, even though they’re likely all around us.  It helps us see the events that we take for granted in rare numbers, but are more noticeable when they’re experienced in the way Chance does.  I hope that experiencing these articles makes everyone more aware of those hidden gems and rare shows that didn’t get noticed the first time around… and might finally get that DVD release, or just the renewed memory of the fun and adventure from the past.  I can only wish to have the some of the luck that Chance Harper did, and that the Chinese curse about interesting times will apply to me as well.  If so, I’ll continue to enjoy these wonderful, forgotten, interesting shows… and have the good fortune to share them with all.

(p.s. I ordered the bootleg DVDs of this series a full three weeks before I was going to begin writing this, and in true Strange Luck fashion they arrived the day AFTER I finished the article.  Not only that, but the envelope looked like it had been run over at least once.  Tracking shows that the package did more traveling than I have personally over the last year, and came close to hitting both coasts… but it’s here, and it works, so I’m grateful.  Like Chance, you just never know….)

Vital Stats

17 aired episodes — none unaired
FOX Network
First aired episode:  September 15, 1995
Last aired episode:  February 23, 1996
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Just its luck, of course it did… and see what happened?  One season and gone.  Even the show’s real Strange Luck couldn’t save it from that time slot.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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