Misfits of Science

One of my favorite current shows (and not eligible for the blog, considering its third season begins airing in mid-June) is the TNT network show Leverage.  It concerns a quirky group of con artists and thieves, each with their own special talents,  brought together into a team who, in the course of their adventures, end up forming into something of a family, albeit an occasionally dysfunctional one.  Executive Producer Dean Devlin (Independence Day, Stargate) has created a terrific production, with a group of writers and performers who really work well together to create a fun, adventurous, and wonderfully watchable show.

And the interesting thing is that, back in the 1980’s, before becoming a producer, Devlin had a short-lived acting career.  And in 1985, he had a featured role in an episode of a series that ALSO was about a quirky group of specially talented individuals, brought together into a team who, in the course of their adventures, end up forming an occasionally dysfunctional family, in a fun, adventurous, and wonderfully watchable show.

They were the Misfits of Science.  Cue the ’80’s music.

Imagine Heroes played for laughs and light-hearted action, instead of personal angst and dark drama.  Imagine a gathering of offbeat characters, with unusual powers, involved in off-the-wall adventures.  Imagine a series that, from the beginning, knew that “different” was just another term for “fun”.

“Weird R Us” was scrawled on their building.  What more could you ask for?

The Misfits of Science Team

“The original idea was just a high-concept notion about a bunch of weird super-heroes.  Originally there was even a flying dog – that was Brandon’s idea.  I told him I would do the show as long as I could have fun with it and not play it straight… We want to be hip and funny.”
–James Parriott, producer

Dr. Billy Hayes (Dean Paul Martin) was the leader of the team, a researcher and scientist working at the Humanidyne group, studying the possibilities of humans with augmented and unique abilities.  That’s a glorified way of saying he specializes in the “misfits of science”.  (The pilot concerns such a man, who’s been deep-frozen since around 1940, and, after being slightly thawed, has the ability to freeze anything else that he touches.  Just to be really weird, he’s also searching for Amelia Earhart.  Really.)  Hayes has no intrinsic “strange” ability of his own, but any good team needs someone to direct, to organize, to LEAD… and in this respect, Hayes is unconventional, but somehow effective.

His best friend is Dr. Elvin “El” Lincoln (Kevin Peter Hall), another researcher at Humanidyne, who just happens to be 7′ 4″ tall.  Teased all his life about his height (and lack of basketball skills, despite being that tall), all he wants is to be… small.  Really small.  “El” creates a chemical and injects himself (like scientists do in all good comics).  Now, he can physically activate the release of the chemical in his body and, for a limited time, become the size of a Ken doll (and be stuck wearing Ken’s clothes as well).

The muscle of the team is former rock musician Johnny B (Mark Thomas Miller), who’d been electrified by his guitar/amp system.  This allows him to collect and store static electricity in his body, and throw bright blue “lightning”.  He also has super-speed, thanks to the stored electricity.  But when the juice is used up, he has to “recharge”, which means he’s weak, vulnerable, and no longer the protection for the group.

Gloria “Glo” Dinallo (Courteney Cox) is a young girl with a history of shoplifting and the power of telekinesis.  She’s also got something of a crush on Johnny B, at least initially, and only wants to control her power and be “normal”.  Of course, the adventures of the group means she has to use her ability, usually to stop speeding cars or knock the baddies out of play.

Dick Stetmeyer (Max Wright) is Billy’s boss, and the guy in charge, supposedly, of Humanidyne.  He’s the inept bureaucrat type, who just wants things to run smoothly and with no problems, which is the exact opposite of the circus run by Dr. Hayes and his menagerie of Misfits and their adventures.

“We’ll rely on the National Enquirer for story ideas.  It’s loosely inspired by the dynamics we saw in Ghostbusters… sort of a kick-back, Friday type of show.”
–Brandon Tartikoff, NBC Programming Chief

Not quite the National Enquirer, but....

Oh, they got the tone right.  Sure, there were serious moments, but the situations they got involved in were usually outrageous, such as trying to find an ancient Mayan city of treasure… apparently buried underneath Beverly Hills.  Or dealing with a pro wrestling fan who mistakenly believes that he really is the superhero character he’s always wanted to play in the ring, thanks to the unknown “help” he got from Glo.  Or protecting a dolphin who can communicate with humans from being used in a drug-smuggling scheme.

Did I mention that the team traveled around in an ice cream truck?  Called the Fundae Sundae?

These are not ordinary stories about ordinary people told in ordinary ways.  This is a show that celebrated strange, those people who didn’t fit in, and invited each and every one of us “misfits” at home to join them.  To become part of the family.  Part of the team.

After having produced the original Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and Voyagers!, James Parriott got the call from NBC Programming Chief Brandon Tartikoff to develop Misfits.

Misfits of Science was a kick.  That was Brandon’s idea.  He didn’t know precisely what he wanted, but he said, ‘OK, I want to do this show about all these people with superpowers.’ … We agreed it was either going to be a huge hit or a big flop, but we decided to take a chance on it.  Directing the pilot was a hoot.  That entire cast was just really fun to work with.”
–James Parriott

Like the group of characters you populate it with, a show is only as good as the team you also get to make it.  Producer Parriott was a veteran at this point, and found some terrific people to help him make Misfits, both experienced and new.  For example, a number of the episodes were directed by Burt Brinckerhoff, a three-time Emmy nominee for Lou Grant, and who went on to direct numerous episodes of light-hearted series such as Remington Steele, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Matlock, and 7th Heaven before retiring in the mid-2000’s.  Music composer Basil Poledouris had composed for the Conan movies, and later went on to compose for The Hunt for Red October and the Robocop franchise, as well as other movies.  Director of Photography Frank Thackeray went on to do the cinematography for most of the episodes of both Matlock and Diagnosis:  Murder, as well as some of the Perry Mason TV movies.  The Production Designer was John D. (Matt) Jefferies, who performed the same function on Matlock, The Greatest American Hero, and, most famously, on the original Star Trek series (where the engineering crawlspaces, throughout all the Trek series, became simply known as “Jefferies Tubes”).

It’s all about the team.  But a team is also only as good as the tools it gets to use.  And unfortunately, in 1985, the tools weren’t nearly as advanced as they are today, no matter what the talent of the workers who used them.   The biggest problem was that, despite the advances brought with the Star Wars movies and such, the state of the art for special effects on television was simply not very good.  And here, in Misfits, was a show that was going to need a LOT of effects….

“They weren’t easy.  Today, they could make that series with no problems.  They are doing it with Heroes.  You can do so much more today with computers that you could not do then.  Back then, it was all done on film.  The character of Elvin, the shrinking guy, was tough.  Just trying to coordinate the blue-screen work was an ordeal.  In the days of film, you couldn’t composite things quickly to see if they were going to work or not.  It was a big, long, expensive process.  So the effects were as good as we could make them on a television budget with our time constraints.  Today, we could have done a much better job.”
–James Parriott

Today, they could even have had the flying dog….

Despite the best efforts of cast, crew, and everyone involved at NBC, there was just no way that Misfits was going to survive, no matter what super powers they might have.  Critics were… less than nice, to say the least, but then, Misfits wasn’t exactly designed to be a critic’s cup of tea anyway.  Fans, or at least the ones who found it, were delighted with the wild adventures and off-the-wall comedy, but it wasn’t enough, and maybe the show was just too different to be a mainstream hit anyway.  But for those of us who loved the odd, the different, the strange, for those of us who found inside each of us that little bit of special that the mundane world always ignored, we might have been the ones who wrote that “Weird R Us” sign outside the lab door.

And every once in a while, one of those Misfits grows up, starts his own lab (so to speak), and gets the chance to produce a team of his own, one that starts out as loners and ends up as a family.  Thanks, Dean Devlin, for doing that, for starting out looking for an ancient Mayan city with the Misfits of Science, and now creating a new world for that same type of “misfit” in Leverage.  Dean recently said something about Leverage, but I think it applies to Misfits of Science as well:

“I said to myself, I want to live in that world, I want to go there, I want to be there.  And [the fans] joined us.  And now we’re all living in that world, and I want to tell you, I never had so much fun in my life.”
–Dean Devlin

Hey, guys… we’re all Misfits, whether we admit it to everyone else or not.  We all just want to be part of the team.

DEAN PAUL MARTIN (Dr. Billy Hayes) was the son of entertainer Dean Martin, and in his teens formed the musical group “Dino, Desi, and Billy” with fellow star offspring Desi Arnaz Jr., earning a couple of minor hits.  His athletic career included playing the Juniors at Wimbledon and the US Junior Circuit, and he combined this with his acting ability in a Golden Globe nominated performance in the tennis movie Players.  An active pilot in the California National Guard, he was killed at the age of 35 when his jet crashed during a snowstorm in the mountains.  He had briefly been married to Olympic skating star Dorothy Hamill.

KEVIN PETER HALL (Dr. Elvin Lincoln) was often in the “monster” suit during his acting career, due to his height, so you may not have recognized much of his work.  He played the “monster” in the TV movie Mazes and Monsters, the Predator in first two Predator films, and Harry in both the movie and TV versions of Harry and the Hendersons.  Hall died, also at the age of 35, due to pneumonia, a complication of having earlier contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion.

MARK THOMAS MILLER (Johnny B) has performed sparingly in the years following Misfits, and went into the business of product and manufacturing engineering, having been awarded several patents for his inventions and designs.  He currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, and also works as a part-time rescue diver.

COURTENEY COX (Gloria Dinallo) has had a tremendously successful career.  First discovered in Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark music video, following Misfits she was a regular on Family Ties for three years. Then she became part of the Friends cast for 10 seasons, becoming one of the highest paid actresses ever on television.  In addition to the Scream series of movies, recent series have included Dirt and the current ABC series Cougar Town.

MAX WRIGHT (Dick Stetmeyer) is best known for being the father on the five-season sitcom ALF, beginning the year after Misfits was canceled.  He was also a regular cast member of Buffalo Bill and Norm.  He now lives with his wife in California.

Die Spezialisten Unterwegs

Misfits of Science is, believe it or not, available on DVD, but you’re going to have to jump through a special hoop to get it.  It’s only been a Region 2/PAL format DVD set released in Germany, known as Die Spezialisten Unterwegs (translation:  Specialists on the Way), although the English soundtrack is one of the choices in the audio menu, so you can watch the show in the original form.  There’s also a fantastic site devoted to the show, the Science of Misfits, and I want to especially thank the site and its creator and contributors for their help with this article.  Go visit it, it’s fun, and there’s more info there than I could possibly put here.  Thanks, guys.  Finally, if you promise not to tell anyone, there’s a site that has some of the episodes available for streaming online, and although the pilot is not the best quality, there are 10 other episodes available for viewing if you want your fix of Misfits.

There’s one more modern connection you may not be aware of for Misfits of Science.  The first story ever sold by writer R. Timothy Kring was the story for the Misfits episode Twin Engines.  Twenty years later, that now-veteran TV writer, under the name Tim Kring, created and produced the series Heroes, about (you guessed it) a group of individuals with unique abilities that find each other, and many of them form something of a team, as well as a rather dysfunctional family.  Misfits might turn into Heroes, or they might end up providing Leverage, but they’ll still be a family.  They’ll still be a team.

Vital Stats:

16 episodes aired.  1 episode unaired originally, shown later overseas and on the SciFi Channel.
NBC network
First aired episode:  October 4, 1985
Last aired episode:  February 21, 1986
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Oh, yeah!  It premiered there.  One of the best examples ever of this type of show, and one of the true reasons this blog even exists under this name.  You’d better believe it.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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