“Who am I? Ernest Pratt, novelist, ne’er-do-well, tenderloin, man about town, creator of tales that are not real…. who am I to buck reality? Reality hurts….
–Ernest Pratt, on the value of the existence of a real-life hero Nicodemus Legend
What happens when the whole world decides you are someone who you’re really not? And then circumstances conspire against you, and force you to do heroic, amazing, and tremendous things… things you’d never thought you’d do, especially when you’re a craven coward who’d rather just sit and drink yourself into a stupor? Somehow, against all efforts on your part, when push comes to shove, you’ve become…. a Legend.
“No! I can’t just assume the identity of Nicodemus Legend!”
“Because we’re nothing alike! He leaps wide canyons, runs like a deer, swims like a spawning salmon… except for the spawning part, I can’t do any of that!”
–dime novelist Ernest Pratt, who’d much rather drink and chase women….
Richard Dean Anderson, of MacGyver fame, decided to play against type for his next part. He portrayed Ernest Pratt, formerly successful dime-novelist in the old west on the series Legend. And Pratt had spent most of the money and fame he’s earned creating his “Nicodemus Legend” books on becoming just another womanizing drunk, despite the efforts of his publishing company.
Writing in the first person, “Nicodemus Legend” is the supposed “author” of these novels, as well as their dashing “hero”. And Pratt’s at the end of his rope because, as his liver has become more soaked, his ideas for Nicodemus have dried up.
Apparently, he’s also become a wanted man in Colorado (or, at least, Nicodemus Legend has), which is odd, since Ernest Pratt has, up to this point, never even set foot in that particular state (although Legend has, according to the books). Therefore, to satisfy both his publishing company (who have threatened to cut off his book advances, and therefore his booze supply), and to find out who or what is messing with the reputation of his creation, he heads to Colorado, and the town of Sheridan….
…where, thanks to the drawings on the back of his books (which the publishing company had him pose for, for publicity purposes), everyone refuses to believe he’s simply Ernest Pratt. Instead, he’s presumed to be the actual “Nicodemus Legend”, hero extraordinaire of the wild west. Apparently “Legend” changed the course of a Colorado river to help a group of local farmers, resulting in his status now being an enemy of the robber barons, and a hero of the community. Plain, ordinary Ernest Pratt is simply ignored and confused, while “Nicodemus Legend” is wanted for arrest by some, threatened within an inch of his life by others, and being followed around by a bunch of people who’ve read his “exploits”, believe in him as a hero, and want the autograph of the famous “adventure hero”, no matter how much Pratt denies their mistaken impression.
The reason for this mistaken impression is one Janos Bartok, a European inventor (played with relish by John de Lancie) and huge fan of the stories of Nicodemus Legend. Bartok ended up in the old west due to a “slight” difference of opinion with Thomas Edison, who apparently stole most of Bartok’s ideas (Bartok refers to Edison as a “plodding troll”). And now Bartok is helping the residents of Sheridan against the rail- and cattle-barons who want to take over land, water-rights, rail right-of-way, and anything else they can get their hands on. That assistance takes the form of using Bartok’s wild inventions to impersonate the infamous Nicodemus Legend (and his amazing adventures) in order to scare off the bad guys and inspire the populace. And now, Bartok has an even better idea: He doesn’t have to “impersonate” Legend, when Pratt Legend is now actually HERE, in the flesh.
“So, I decided to give all the credit for my miracles to that imaginary miracle worker… that knight of the Rockies, the paladin of the prairies, the defender of the weak… Nicodemus Legend. In short, he was tailor-made for the role!”
–Janos Bartok, on why he impersonated the fictional Nicodemus Legend
With Bartok’s inventions behind the scenes, and Pratt reluctantly convinced to play the part of his novel creation, the fictional stories can now become fact, and the great “Nicodemus Legend” can truly become a real life hero. In fact, Bartok has already created much of the fictional “tech” from the books already, including a steam-powered land-rover (car), the 1800’s version of a taser, and a hang-glider for human flight.
Even though he’s not all that keen on being a hero (Pratt would still rather find a bottle and a skirt to chase, in either order), Pratt’s ego inspires him to help anyway. After all, who can resist a fan who’s read everything you’ve ever written? Oh, and being able to play off that “stellar” reputation at times has its perks as well, although the character of Legend is supposed to be truthful, virtuous, and stalwart… all the things Pratt is not. Plus, these new adventures of Nicodemus Legend are fodder for new written stories as well, which makes publishers, fans, Pratt’s bank account, and everyone happy… except, of course, for the bad guys Pratt (as Legend) now has to face, for real, with more than just a fictional life on the line every time. Nicodemus Legend may have a superhuman reputation, but it’s still Pratt facing the bad guys, even with Bartok’s help.
“Your celebrity has the power to give our enemies pause. My science can increase that reputation. And together… we will create the real LEGEND!”
–Janos Bartok, finally convincing Pratt to take on the role of Legend
Now, don’t get the idea that I’ve sold Pratt short here. Pratt is a writer, and when he’s not drunk, he’s a pretty good one. Therefore, he has a way with words, and he can talk his was out of most situations when necessary. Unfortunately, he also has the ability to talk himself INTO situations that he shouldn’t be involved in, leading to some of his more daring exploits. He also gets to face bad guys who have targeted “Legend” with lethal intent (although he talks one of them out of shooting him, with a tale of how much more money the gunman would earn writing about previous murderous exploits, if he just lets “Legend” make a deal with his publisher instead of killing Pratt outright). Bartok and his inventions help significantly, but they can’t do everything. Sometimes, it is Pratt’s wits that get the team out of their particular jam… but whether it’s Pratt or Bartok, the great Nicodemus Legend still gets all the credit. Richard Dean Anderson (as one of the producers) never wanted this show to be about the adventures of Nicodemus Legend though… he wanted it to be about the misadventures of Ernest Pratt.
“I’m always playing Pratt. I’m always the writer. Part of the humor and part of Pratt’s quirky behavioral aspects come when he has to assume this role. He has to assume a different posture, a different attitude. There’s a slight voice change and there’s supposed to be an attitude change when he’s dealing with the outside world. But, ultimately, he’s still Pratt. So, sometimes he’s a fish out of water. It’s an all-encompassing character and, while I like playing both parts of the character, I see them both as parts of Pratt.”
–Richard Dean Anderson
No one will ever remember the name of Ernest Pratt, although they should; Janos Bartok will simply be a footnote in the career of Thomas Edison, a brilliant inventor who disappeared one day. But Nicodemus Legend…. Oh, the stories that were written, and the amazing adventures…. Why, they could literally be Legend.
Except, of course, they weren’t. This was because the show had the unfortunate luck to be one of the first shows ever on the fledgling United Paramount Network (UPN). Paramount Television has been a production studio for most of its existence. The problem with being “just” a studio, at least on the television side, is all you could do is sell your shows to a Network (ABC, NBC, CBS), and they made money off YOUR show. The only way a studio made any money is if the show was successful enough that plenty of episodes got made. Those episodes then got sold, as reruns, to local stations, and THEN the money came rolling in. Of course, the NEXT problem is, you have to make an awful lot of UNsuccessful shows before you hit the one SUCCESSFUL show that not only makes you money, but has to bankroll all the failures as well. And you never knew ahead of time what might succeed, and what might fail.
Paramount actually had this brilliant “network” idea back in the late 1970’s, and floated the idea of a new Star Trek series with the original cast, but there weren’t enough non-affiliated stations available (most of them already having network ties). Star Wars then hit the movie theaters, and Paramount decided that the audience for Trek had shifted, and they’d missed their chance.
So, Paramount was always “just” a production studio for television (albeit a rather successful one, comparatively), but never one of the “big three” networks. As the late ’70’s became the early ’90s, there were many more independent stations available, thanks to the utilization of what used to be UHF channels, but were now standard (low number) channels on basic cable. FOX had entered the network business (in the late ’80s), so they could “cut out the middleman”, sell their own shows to themselves, and sell all the advertising as well, keeping the money. Both UPN (Paramount) and The WB (Warner Brothers) made deals with the remaining independent stations (sometimes the same ones), and the race for success was on.
While the WB concentrated on younger audiences, UPN tried to use its flagship Star Trek franchise as the centerpiece (Star Trek: Voyager‘s debut in 1995 was the first UPN show ever), they had to fill out at least a limited schedule of something OTHER than Trek… and in April on the inaugural UPN season, Legend began.
UPN wasn’t the success that Paramount had hoped for, only programming two nights a week at the start. Even then, many times fans couldn’t find what they wanted to watch because programs were moved around, or pre-empted entirely, because the local stations could run the UPN offerings pretty much where they wanted (or run WB shows), instead of creating a more “formal” network schedule. So between local pre-emptions and an inability to consistently promote anything that wasn’t titled Star Trek, UPN had a very rough first season.
The only show to return on the schedule that fall for UPN was Star Trek: Voyager, although six scripts had been ordered for a new season of Legend. A change of the top brass at UPN basically meant a clean sweep of what had already been part of the network, and so Legend only got 13 filmed hours (a 2-hour pilot and 11 episodes). UPN hadn’t yet figured out how to be something other than a producer of programming yet either, and likely never did. Years later, it merged with The WB to become the CW network, and Paramount went back to being what it was best at: making programs instead of trying to run a network. Just as Ernest Pratt had only pretended to be Nicodemus Legend (with limited, but occasionally spectacular success), UPN pretended to be a network with occasional successes and ultimate failure.
RICHARD DEAN ANDERSON (Ernest Pratt/Nicodemus Legend) will always be known, of course, as MacGyver, but he started his career with five seasons on General Hospital. His move to prime time began when he starred (and sang!) in a TV version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and joined the Navy in Emerald Point N.A.S. After Legend, his most recent and long-running stint was as Jack O’Neill in all the versions of the Stargate TV series, the longest running SF show on American TV.
JOHN de LANCIE (Janos Bartok) is best known as the rather arrogant Q (and who wouldn’t be arrogant, if you were essentially omnipotent?) on three versions of Star Trek, most notably as Picard’s constant foil on The Next Generation. He also started on soaps, specifically Days of Our Lives in the early ’80s, before becoming one of the most sought after guest actors on television. Memorable spots include everything from Hill Street Blues and The West Wing to Charmed and Sports Night, not to mention a first season guest shot on a series called MacGyver, where he began a lifelong friendship with Richard Dean Anderson. He’s also been active as an acting teacher, and is very involved in both audio (radio) style performing and appearances with various orchestras across the country doing dramatic readings and performances during concert presentations.
YouTube has the standard few clips of the show available, including at least one full episode (Revenge of the Herd), but your best bet for Legend material is the multitude of Richard Dean Anderson sites out there. Most have at least a section on Legend, between material on MacGyver and Stargate. Vidiot has excellent pages on all UPN series, and his Legend page is no exception. I also recommend a few text articles with producer and creator Michael Piller (who, although he is no longer with us, should still be remembered as someone who helped MOST of the really good TV writers working in the medium today). Honestly, I could do an article just on Piller alone, with his 500 hours of various Star Trek series, Legend, The Dead Zone, and many other shows, not to mention being a mentor and guide to so many young writers, and fill pages and pages. Perhaps someday I will, because in addition to creating the uniqueness that was Legend, he really was a legend himself….
There’s a scene near the end of the pilot when both Janos and Ernest discuss Nicodemus Legend, and whether their co-operation (and therefore the “reality” of the adventures of “Legend”) should continue. And they discover a very important thing about themselves, thanks to “their” existence as Nicodemus. As Ernest walks away, into the sunset (as heroes do in all good westerns), Janos remarks about their own adventure together….
“Do you honestly think you can go back to the life of Ernest Pratt so easily? You know, you’re not the same man who came to Sheridan. Whether you care to believe it or not, a part of you is Legend, and you’ll never be able to walk away from that again. I know I never will, because you see, Ernest, a part of me is now Legend too.
Don’t you see the incredible possibilities for real adventure? The practical application of science and invention… I’m a good scientist, I can create what you can imagine… doesn’t that at least intrigue you?
But you know, Ernest, I can’t do it without you… separately, you and I are heroes to no one… together, we could become… legendary.”
Ernest turns back to Janos, instead of heading off into the sunset. Nicodemus will continue. There may only be 13 hours of televised adventures… but Legend lives on.
13 hours (2-hour pilot and 11 hour episodes) — no unaired episodes
First aired episode: April 18, 1995
Last aired episode: August 8, 1995
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Impossible. At the time, UPN only broadcast a couple of nights a week, with Paramount movie reruns on Friday nights. Legend aired primarily on Tuesday nights in most of the US, as part of UPN’s “Action Tuesdays”.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.