Thursday, November 26, 2015

He Likes to Watch

As California author Lee Goldberg has explained, he began writing what’s now the 828-page volume, Unsold Television Pilots: 1955-1989, “when I was nine years old.” That was long before he’d commenced penning episodes of Diagnosis: Murder and Monk, or concocted the Monk tie-in novels, and well prior to his co-creating independent publisher Brash Books or partnering up with Janet Evanovich on their Nicolas Fox/Kate O’Hare thrillers (The Scam). “By the time I finished it,” Goldberg notes of this work, “I was in my early twenties and was far enough along in my TV career that one of my filmed, unsold pilots actually became an entry in this book (If You Knew Sammy, a potential spin-off from Spenser: For Hire). I appreciated the irony. It somehow seemed fitting.”

When it was first published in the pre-Internet Revolution days of 1989, Unsold Television Pilots was pretty much the go-to resource for information about “would-be TV shows that never were.” There have been versions published since then (including a two-volume iUniverse release), but this new paperback edition is the ultimate prize--updated and corrected and made available at reasonable expense to onetime boob-tube junkies like me who are old enough to harbor fond memories of many of the prospective series mentioned. What’s equally satisfying is finding listings here for pilot films I don’t recall watching. I guess I must’ve had something else going on in my life on those nights …

Goldberg breaks his thousands of entries down a chapter per year, and within those chapters he divides his write-ups further by network (there were only three of those for most of the period under consideration here), and then again by Comedy or Drama--the latter of which interests me most. Flipping through these pages, I came across so many pilots that I’d hoped would spawn entries in my regular boyhood TV schedule. Shows such as Last Hours Before Morning (aka Delaney), a 1975 NBC film starring Ed Lauter as a cop-turned-house detective working at a Los Angeles apartment-hotel complex in the 1940s, who moonlights as a private eye. Or Hernandez (aka Hernandez: Houston P.D.), another NBC tryout--this one from 1973--which found former High Chaparral actor Henry Darrow playing a Mexican-American police detective in Houston, Texas. (The fact that Darrow was actually Puerto Rican didn’t seem to matter to anyone involved in the production.) Or ABC’s The Adventures of Nick Carter (1972), with ex-Wild Wild West leading man Robert Conrad in the role of dime-novel sleuth and “master of disguise” Nick Carter. (Sadly, that pilot was deemed overly violent.) Or The Judge and Jake Wyler, which was executive-produced by William Link and Richard Levinson of Columbo fame, and cast Bette Davis as “a retired [and hypochondriacal] judge who becomes a private eye. She is assisted in her investigations by Doug McClure, an ex-con serving his probation with her.” (This concept was retooled in 1973 as Partners in Crime, starring Lee Grant and Lou Antonio, but again failed to sell.)

My memory is less clear about such series ideas as ABC’s The Bravos (1972), which imagined future Banacek star George Peppard as a post-Civil War “U.S. Cavalry commander … trying to raise his 12-year-old son (Vincent Van Patten) in an outpost right in the heart of Indian country.” And I have no recollection whatsoever of Stone (ABC, 1973) starring Robert Hooks as “a high-priced, black private eye working in Santa Monica who is choosy about his cases”; or Dead Man on the Run, a 1975 ABC audition for a series that would’ve been called New Orleans Force, starring Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves as the head of “an elite crime-fighting force”; or Jake’s Way, a 1980 pilot with Robert Fuller (Emergency!) portraying a sheriff in rural Texas; or Big Rose: Double Trouble, a 1973 CBS drama that featured Shelly Winters as “streetwise private eye Rose Winters,” who hires a “young, inexperienced investigator (Barry Primus) who sees humor in things she takes quite seriously--like life or death situations.” (Any resemblance to the set-up of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool/Donald Lam series was, I’m sure, purely coincidental.)

Some of the long-forgotten series wannabes that Goldberg mentions here--such as NBC’s The Underground Man (1974), in which Peter Graves played Ross Macdonald’s private eye, Lew Archer, and Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside (1973), which starred Tony Lo Bianco as a Manhattan police detective who loses an arm in a gunfight but keeps working (unofficially, of course) with his former cop partner, Hal Linden--I have managed to collect over the last few years, either by downloading them from YouTube or purchasing pirated DVD versions. Others, though, feel like my own Moby Dicks, films I have hunted without success. Those include Travis McGee (ABC, 1983), with Sam Elliott portraying John D. MacDonald’s famous “salvage expert,” working from a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant; The Jordan Chance (NBC, 1978), a Stephen J. Cannell-produced pilot with Raymond Burr as “an attorney who was once wrongly imprisoned and is now dedicated to helping others who are unjustly accused or punished for crimes they did not commit”; Panache (ABC, 1976), casting Rene Auberjonois in a “lighthearted adventure [that] was set in the 17th century and followed the exploits of Panache, a poet, romanticist, and the best swordsman in France, and his musketeers …”; and the aforementioned Partners in Crime. Someday, I know, I’ll manage to track down these flicks. But for now, I can do no better than to keep my spear handy.

When Goldberg brought his revised edition of Unsold Television Pilots into print a few months ago, he also brought out (thanks to the wonders of on-demand publishing) reworkings of two smaller, related books that he composed years ago. The first of those is The Best TV Shows That Never Were, which--at a comparatively anorexic 226 pages--is a “best of” culling of entries from Unsold Television Pilots. The other one, titled Television Fast Forward: Sequels & Remakes of Cancelled Series, 1955-1992 (250 pages), focuses on programs that--for better or worse--were given second shots on the air, often in the form of one-off TV films (e.g., 1988’s Bonanza: The Next Generation and 1989’s The Return of Sam McCloud), though sometimes as revival series, such as Bret Maverick (1981-1982) and the 1988-1990 revamping of Mission: Impossible.

All three of these books are copiously researched and often amusing, and they’d make excellent presents for graying TV geeks on your holiday gift list. If I found myself disappointed in any way, it’s only that I wanted to know more about many of the shows cited.

READ MORE:Hilarious Unsold Pilots” and “More Great Unsold
,” by Ken Levine.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Have a happy thanksgiving, Jeff. I am very thankful to have you in my life.

michael said...

Happy thanksgiving, Jeff.
I do have one complaint, that Lee Goldberg can't clone himself and have time to do a book about unsold pilots from 1990 to present.

Lee Goldberg said...

I'm very flattered. Thank you so much for the terrific review. I have some of those "MOBY DICK" pilots you are longing for. When my knee is better, I will dive into the black hole of my garage, see if I can dig them up, and burn some copies for you.