Tuesday, August 08, 2006

So That’s What Was Up Bixby’s Sleeve

I originally came by my interest in crime fiction via television, not novels. As a young teenager in the 1970s, I was a huge fan of the NBC Mystery Moviewheel series,” as well as The Rockford Files, Switch, Harry O, Ellery Queen, City of Angels, and other shows of lesser merit. (OK, I confess: I watched all four episodes of The Duke, with Robert Conrad. Happy now?) Thanks to the wonders of digital technology, some of my favorites are again available for viewing, including Columbo, Rockford, and McMillan & Wife. But not all of them. Not yet The Magician, for instance.

Despite its having been rerun on the Sci-Fi Channel some years back, most folks probably don’t remember The Magician. Just 21 episodes of that NBC-TV series were made, plus a pilot, all starring Bill Bixby. “This was supposed to be Bill Bixby’s breakthrough into dramatic television,” wrote TV historian Ed Robertson in an article for the TVparty! Web site. “Fresh off The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Bixby was considered a top audience draw when The Magician premiered in 1973. Both NBC and Paramount Pictures had high hopes for this light action drama about a troubleshooting illusionist named Anthony Blake.” In its 1973 “Fall Preview” issue, TV Guide sounded intrigued by, but still skeptical about the concept of this Tuesday series:
One way to get around current constraints on TV violence is to invent a hero who is capable of triumphing over the forces of evil without slugging or shooting anybody. Such a man is Anthony Blake ... He’s the world’s greatest magician, and also a snappy dresser and no slouch as a Samaritan. Whenever someone’s in trouble, abracadabra!--Tony is there to help. And if six or seven goons try to dismember him, all he has to do is toss a flock of doves at them or disappear in a puff of smoke. ... Tony lives on his own luxurious jet plane (“It’s like any other mobile home, except a lot faster”), which is always ready to take off, in case this week’s damsel in distress lives out of town.
However, that year’s Writers Guild strike, coupled with the challenge of credibly integrating Blake into criminal situations that were commonly the province of police and having to incorporate legerdemain into each episode, made The Magician a tough sell. So did the fact that Paramount execs envisioned Bixby’s new series as a “modern swashbuckling adventure, a show full of pure entertainment made for the enjoyment of its audience,” while its original writer, Joseph Stefano (Psycho, The Outer Limits), saw it as a darker, less action-oriented story. The studio won out, making The Magician a picaresque, slightly romantic program that boasted plenty of style, a fair share of lovely “damsels in distress” (including Carol Lynley), and a catchy, trumpet-dominated theme written by Patrick Williams. But it wasn’t enough. Bixby clashed with the studio over how to best present the magic sequences, the Writers Guild work stoppage caused production to be rushed and exacerbated tensions, and audiences may have been turned off by the fact that magician Blake was jet-setting about, burning major amounts of fuel just as the United States was experiencing an oil crisis. Changes were made. The expensive private plane was grounded, while Blake took up residence in Hollywood’s landmark Magic Castle, instead. And the show’s action elements were beefed up. But it wasn’t enough; the series disappeared in the spring of 1974 (though NBC later experimented again with a magician-detective, in its short-lived 1986 serial Blacke’s Magic, starring Hal Linden and Harry Morgan).

Nonetheless, as Ed Robertson writes in Television Chronicles (a magazine that disappeared from newsstands several years ago, but was reborn this month as an online publication),
Time has certainly been kind to The Magician ... [It] has lived on since its cancellation, finding new audiences in overseas syndication and on U.S. cable television, while sparking a renewed interest in the performance of magic. While some professional magicians remain critical of the series, others have credited it for ushering in the so-called “golden age” of magic from which the likes of David Copperfield, David Blaine, Criss Angel, Siegfried & Roy, Penn & Teller, and other illusionists have emerged over the past 30 years. In that respect, despite its limited number of episodes, The Magician continues to have the kind of far-reaching impact that few television shows ever achieve.
Robertson’s piece is packed with insider info and interviews relating to the rise and demise of Bixby’s ambitious series. It even includes a sound file of the Magician theme. If you’ve never heard of The Magician, let this be your introduction. And if Robertson’s piece is any indication of the quality of work to be featured in the reincarnated Television Chronicles, then add this Webzine to your list of favorite links. For a TV nostalgia buff like me, there’s more delight to be found in such stories than in seeing a rabbit yanked from a top hat.

(Hat tip to Lee Goldberg.)

ADDENDUM: During the fall of 1973, TV Guide published the following two-page spread about the “specially tailored Boeing 720 jet” on which Anthony Blake (Bixby) lived in The Magician. Click to enlarge.


Anonymous said...

The Magician was big in the UK, I loved it as did my mom [who thought Bixby was cute] - pity he couldn't control his anger when he went all green and Hulk


Anonymous said...

Please sign the petition to get this on DVD - Pass it forward!

Anonymous said...

***At last - FINALLY VEI video from Toronto officially released the Magician on dvd on August 25 2017!!! Retail cost is $40.00.Buy it online at their website.www.visualentertainment.tv....before it dissappears!