I love TV and I have a secret addiction (okay, not so secret if you are reading this blog) to TV reference books and books about individual, often obscure TV shows. Here are reviews of two recent books that fit the bill.
MR. NOVAK: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter (Bear Manor Media) Chuck Harter’s MR. NOVAK is a terrific book on the making of a short-lived, little-known (because it’s hardly been rerun), but widely-acclaimed (in its time) TV series that starred James Franciscus as a teacher and Dean Jagger as his principal. MR. NOVAK followed the successful DR. KILDARE template, a series made by the same studio and developed by E. Jack Neuman, the writer/creator of this series, and it was undoubtedly an inspiration for the much-more sucessful ROOM 222, which came along years later. Harter’s book benefits enormously from his extensive research and numerous interviews with the key players of the show, both behind the camera and in front of it (some interviews were conducted personally, others gleaned from press reports and other sources). In many ways, MR. NOVAK is a story of opportunity lost — the series was a critical and popular hit in its first season, but then was sabotaged by financial and creative studio and network meddling in the second season, which included a misguided change in the writing and the loss of key cast members. You don’t have to be a fan of MR. NOVAK to enjoy this book — in fact, I’ve never seen a single frame of the program. But I found the book fascinating anyway. The book comes with a detailed episode guide and two great bonus features — E. Jack Neuman’s “bible” for writers on the series and the synopsis of a two-part cross-over episode with DR. KILDARE about VD that was nixed at the last second by skittish NBC (the synopsis is inexplicably titled “a novelization” by Harter, which it most certainly is not). There are a lot of valuable lessons that current TV professionals — writers, producers, and executives — could learn from reading this detailed examination/appreciation/history/post-mortem of what could have been a landmark series in TV history if not for its death from self-inflicted wounds.
Note: This is a minor quibble, but two errors jumped out at me. In discussing the post-NOVAK career of James Franciscus, Harter says that LONGSTREET ran for two seasons and that HUNTER, an episionage series co-starring Linda Evans, ran for 13 episodes on SyFy. In fact, LONGSTREET only ran for one season and HUNTER aired on CBS for eight episodes (13 were shot, five never aired) in 1977…decades before SyFy channel even existed.
ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999, Edited by Amanda Reyes (Headpress) This book is a lot of fun and wonderfully captures the cheesy delight of the 1970s TV movies (the “scary Zuni fetish doll” from the classic movie-of-the-week Trilogy of Terror is mentioned four times in just the first 16 pages of the book!).
But the MOWs, as they were called, were more than just the TV equivalent of “grindhouse”/ “exploitation” movies. They were also a vivid reflection of our society at the time. Sadly, these often terrific movies are very hard to find, rarely showing up either on DVD or in syndication, and are very underappreciated. And that’s a shame, because as editor (and Made for TV Mayhem blogger) Amanda Reyes notes, “the seventies are considered the heyday of the made for television movie…the phenomenon of the television movie, while fairly well known, still struggles for recognition and remains one of the most overlooked mediums.” MOWs were also, as she observes, “a welcoming place for classic actors hoping to make a fast buck” and for “TV actors to break the mold of a long-running series in which they were often trapped.” Those of us of a certain age still remember the delight of seeing wholesome Andy Griffith become a baddie in the classic MOW Pray for the Wildcats or the spectacle of a faded big screen star like Bette Davis in the awful Madame Sin
Are You in the House Alone? is essentially a collection of hit-or-miss essays leading into a large section of reviews of some of the most memorable TV movies. The best essays are those focusing on the heyday of MOWs, the 1970s, and some of the thematic issues they tackled. The essays on “World War III in Television Movies” and “The Plight of the Small Screen Superhero” feel more like blogposts that the authors didn’t bother to flesh out for the book. And the section on mini-series (this is a book about TV movies, isn’t it?) and the TV films of Wes Craven read like filler.
Perhaps the best portion of this 338-page paperback is devoted to movie reviews, even if some of the choices are rather perplexing. I can see why Reyes included reviews of MOWs that were failed pilots for TV series (like Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, Baffled, or Men of the Dragon), but I don’t get why include they also included a few that became series (like the MOW pilots for HAWAII FIVE-O, COLUMBO and HARRY O)? I would have preferred to see reviews of more obscure, unjustly forgotten MOWs. My other quibble with the reviews is that they all list the director and principal cast — but not the screenwriter. That strikes me as a major oversight (though, in some cases, the screenwriter was mentioned in the course of the review).
That said, this book was a giddy delight (a feeling clearly shared by many of the authors towards the movies), thought-provoking….and a welcome bit of nostalgia. It had the same effect on me as hearing Burt Bacharach’s ABC Movie of the Week theme has on Reyes… “it brings back more than just the movies…it brings back a time, a place and a moment when your television set turned into a bonafide movie theater and anything was possible.”
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Sometimes I think Richard Irvin is writing books just for me. It’s almost like I’m holding him prisoner in my basement, feeding him Cheetos and forcing him to write TV reference books on delightfully obscure subjects for my personal amusement. His credits so far include such gems as Forgotten Laughs: An Episode Guide to 150 Sitcoms You Probably Never Saw, George Burns’ Television Productions: The Series and Pilots, Spinning Laughter: Profiles of 111 Proposed Comedy Spin-offs and Sequels That Never Became Series. Now he’s back with two more winners…
The Early Shows: A Reference Guide to Network and Syndicated Primetime Television Series from 1944-1949 (Bear Manor Media) This is an amazing work of television search and scholarship, tracking shows from the dark ages of television that few people have seen or ever heard of. Irvin is the consumate researcher and goes into astonishing detail on each show. But this is far from a dry, boring reference book…it’s hours of fascinating reading, it’s also a time capsule offering a glimpse into the cultural, historical, technological issues of the day…and an intriguing foreshadow of what was to come in television’s future. It’s full of cool trivia — for example, in the sitcom Mama (1949-1956), Dick Van Patten played the eldest son, but when he had to miss a few episodes James Dean stepped in to play the character in his place. And guest stars in the sitcom included Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon. One of my favorite discoveries in the book is a series called Off The Record, which ran for two episodes in September 1948. It starred Zero Mostel as a millionaire DJ broadcasting a radio show from his lavish Manhattan penthouse apartment. Mostel walked off the show when the producer failed to deliver a promised live audience to fill the theater where the sitcom was filmed. Another intriguing show is the dark drama anthology Mr. Black, which aired for a just few weeks in the fall of 1949, and was written entirely by novelist and prolific television writer Bill Ballinger. Mr. Black was the Devil’s emissary on earth and he took particular delight in pitting people against one another and seeing just how much death and misery he could cause. So little is known about the show that there’s some dispute over who actually starred in it. I know I say this a lot, especially about Irvin’s books, but this is a must-have for any television reference collection. But wait, there’s more…
Film Stars’ Television Projects: Pilots and Series of 50+ Movie Greats 1948-1985 by Richard Irvin (McFarland & Co). I went into this thinking there wasn’t going to be anything here of interest to me…after all, I wrote Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1989. What could he tell me about the pilots by film stars that I don’t already know? Quite a bit! I loved this book. He gives deep background and detailed synopses of the TV series (and would-be series) projects of some big screen stars who hoped to revive their careers on the small screen with, in most cases, little success. The stars include Claudette Colbert, George Sanders, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott, Joan Crawford, Alan Ladd, Orson Welles and Bette Davis. One of Davis’ failed TV projects in the 1950s was a proposed series entitled Morgan & McBride, written by Fay Kanin and produced by Jack Webb, that would have cast Davis as a lawyer with a younger partner played by William Shatner. It’s a tragedy that it was never shot for the camp value alone. The concept was tried again with Greer Garson & Peter Falk as the leads, and was ultimately shot in 1972 with Susan Hayward (also profiled in the book) and James Stacy. This is a marvelous little book (only 223 pages but it feels like its packed with 500 pages of information) that I strongly recommend. I can’t say the same for the next book…
Mad About Mysteries: 100 Wonderful Television Mysteries from the Seventies by Donna Marie Nowak (Bear Manor Media) “Mad about Mystery” is an appropriate title for this very strange book… the random musings of a mystery fan about mystery television in the seventies mixed in with a few interviews and drawings (yes, drawings). There is no real organizing principle beyond her love of 70s mystery television (though she stretches “mystery” pretty broadly to include a lot of other stuff, like Scooby Doo, Salem’s Lot, and Satan’s School for Girls). The introduction by Stefanie Powers isn’t an introduction at all, but rather a rambling, informative Q&A about the actress and her involvement in Hart to Hart, among other shows. As for the rest of the book, the author has selected some “mystery” TV movies and series that I suppose she feels represented the genre in the decade, then offers her personal review and synopsis of each one, along with some bits of information that are well-known (and, in some cases, inaccurate. For example, she mentions that the TV movie Dear Detective starring Brenda Vaccaro was an unsold pilot for a series that never happened…but she’s wrong, there was a series, something a simple Google search would have revealed in a less than 2 seconds). Her list of mystery movies & TV series includes horror, animation and Wonder Woman, so her criteria for inclusion is a real head-scratcher. But she knows the programs well and her reviews are knowledgeable, though they don’t offer any fresh insights, information or trivia. By far the best part of the book, and the only real reason to read it, is her section of informative Q&A interviews with actors, writers, and stunt men of the era (from which the Powers interview was presumably pulled and moved to the front of the book for the “introduction”). The interviews with Sharon Farrell, Diana Muldaur, Tom Sawyer and Peter S. Fischer are especially interesting (though the Q&A’s with Sawyer and Fischer rely too much on excerpts from *their* books…especially for me, since I read both of their books). The author would have been better served scrapping her “reviews” of 70s TV movies and series and focusing instead on more interviews.
After delivering my new novel to my editor, I treated myself to two non-fiction books about TV shows — THIRTYSOMETHING and PETROCELLI.
THIRTYSOMETHING AT THIRTY: AN ORAL HISTORY by Scott Ryan. This a fantastic book, full of insights into every aspect of the show, and told in a unique and truly compelling fashion: almost entirely in stand-alone, capsule quotes from actors, writers, directors and producers who made the series. The author acts more like a film editor, arranging the quotes in the best order to tell the story but also to maintain narrative tension. It’s brilliantly done…and is not only informative, but very entertaining, like listening in to a fascinating, Hollywood dinner party. The book tracks the show season by season, episode by episode, and goes into remarkable, behind-the-scenes detail. There’s a feast here for writers, directors, actors, producers and fans of the show to devour. Particularly fascinating and revealing for me was the story, told almost in a Rashomon fashion, behind the fifth season that the network and studio wanted…but that the showrunners didn’t…and all the emotions, creative conflicts, and politics that led to the series’ premature demise. The book even includes the script pages for the unshot, final scene of the final episode. The author clearly put enormous work into the book, engaging in hundreds of hours worth of interviews. You don’t need to be a fan of Thirtysomething to learn something from this book…especially if you’re a student of TV history, or contemplating a career in TV, or are even an established writer/producer about to embark on running your own show. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read about a TV show and should be required reading in classes about writing and producing series television. The only drawback is that there’s no index…which isn’t a problem is you’ve got the ebook edition, but if you have a print copy, it’s definitely missed.
PETROCELLI: AN EPISODE GUIDE AND MUCH MORE by Sandra Grabman. The book is thin, a mere 129 pages, because it’s really not much more than a general episode guide, despite the subtitle “and so much more.” I really wish there was “so much more,” because I’m a huge fan of the series and was thrilled when it finally came out on DVD. There’s not much information here besides random quotes from articles about the show and broad synopses of the episodes. There’s very little about the development of the original theatrical movie, The Lawyer, or what prompted the studio, network or producers to adapt the only modestly successful film into a series four years after its release. Why did it take so long to happen? Did the idea to do a series originate with the studio? What network did they take it to first? Why did they shoot a pilot rather than use the movie as the pilot (given that they had the same star)? It’s also never explained why the writer & director of the movie seemingly weren’t involved in the pilot or series, nor why key cast members from film weren’t retained for the pilot (besides Barry Newman). There’s no discussion of how the pilot, entitled Night Games, was developed creatively, or how the showrunner was selected, or what elements they decided to keep and/or discard from the movie and why. Only perfunctory is attention is given to the writing and production of the TV series, which was shot on location in Tucson. Perhaps the lack of details is because many of the key production personnel have passed away…but that obstacle hasn’t stopped other authors from doing far more thorough and satisfying books about much older shows that this one. It would have been nice if the author sought out more of the writers, directors and actors for in-depth interviews and did a much more thorough job of exploring the nut-and-bolts of the series. There’s no mention, for instance, of Lalo Schifrin’s theme or his scoring of the series. Also, very little attention is given to the reasoning behind the show’s near cancellation after the first season, or the creative changes made in the second season, or what elements, besides ratings, factored into the show’s ultimate cancellation. Again, it would have been helpful if the author had talked to studio or network executives, assuming any of them are still with us, rather than just speculating. Overall, the book comes off as a very half-baked work…worthwhile only for the most ardent Petrocelli fan who merely wants a printed episode guide to refer to. This book was truly a missed opportunity.
52 WEEKS & 52 WESTERN NOVELS edited by Scott Harris & Paul Bishop. First, I have to admit a bias. The coauthor of this book, Paul Bishop, is an old friend of mine and many of the authors profiled, and the contributors who wrote about them, are my friends, too. Also one of the books covered, OUTRAGE AT BLANCO, is published by Brash Books, a company I co-founded. All that said, I love this book and I believe I would even if I didn’t know so many of the people involved.
If I were really industrious, I’d list 52 reasons why this slick, beautifully designed book is a must-have for western fans…especially those who are just getting into the genre. #1 on my list would be that it offers a great overview of key western novels that offer a wide-ranging perspective on the genre. #2 would be that each entry is affectionately, and knowledgeably written by either well-read experts in the genre or acclaimed western authors. #3 would be that even long-time western fans will learn some interesting facts about books and authors they thought they knew everything about. Count me among them. This book is packed with information and will make you want to read, or re-read, every single title.
It’s not clear to me how the 52 books that are covered were chosen…or why some authors get two or more listings (like Claire Huffaker, Marvin Albert and Louis L’Amour) while other landmark authors/novels aren’t listed at all (like Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE and A.B. Guthrie‘s THE WAY WEST, for example). There are lots of well-known titles (especially among western fans) and many obscure ones that were new to me (and that I am eager to read!).
If I have a criticism, it’s that the write-ups can be a bit too familiar at times, with the contributors talking too much about themselves or about how they know the authors (“I’ve had the great pleasure to get to know Arnold and his wife Bonnie over the years” or “Bill and I first met through the pages of fanzines” etc). I also wish the two editors had resisted the urge to refer to their own western novels (“In my own series of western books…”) in write-ups of other books or to have their books included in the listings — it gives the book an unnecessary, self-promotional aspect that detracts from the overall professionalism of the endeavour.
But those are minor quibbles. The passion the editors and their contributors have for the genre, and for these books, is palpable. This isn’t a dry, stodgy reference work. It’s a fun read, written in a casual, energetic style that makes you feel like you’re having dinner with a group of really smart, really passionate western fans who can’t stop talking about the books they love…and that they want you to love as much as they do.
Little White Lies By Ace Atkins. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again… Ace Atkins is writing better Spenser novels now than the last few that Robert B. Parker wrote before his death. Not only does Atkins perfectly channel Robert B. Parker’s voice, without slipping into satire or pastiche, he also matches Parker at his best in terms of character and story. Longtime fans of the series will be glad to see the return of some familiar faces and references to past cases in this tale, which pits Spenser against a conman, a mega-church, and paramilitary bad guys. I doubt anybody but Parker himself could top Ace at writing Spenser. I can’t wait to see where Ace takes Spenser next.
Writing the Pilot: Creating The Series by William Rabkin. This book is so much more than that straight-forward title suggests. Yes, it will teach you the key elements that every series needs to get on the air…and stay there for 100 episodes. My old friend and former TV writing partner William Rabkin does it well, with a disarmingly casual, conversational approach that will make you feel as if you have a best friend in the business. You will finish the book eager, and well-prepared, to create television’s next cutting-edge show. But the book is so much more than a mere how-to guide to being the next Shonda Rhimes, JJ Abrams, or Greg Berlanti. This book can also can stand alone as a brilliant, succinct overview of the history of the television business and, more importantly for writers, the evolution of television storytelling (the two subjects are inseparable, which is another brilliant insight that Bill shares). The introduction alone is worth the purchase price…you can consider the rest extra value. He examines the way stories are told on television with a thoroughness and understanding that nobody else ever has before… perhaps because there hasn’t been anybody better positioned to do it than Bill. He’s not only a respected writer-producer and a beloved teacher, but he’s also an experienced entertainment industry journalist. He is able to take a step back from a business and a craft he knows so well and look at it objectively, with a journalist’s eye, to see the bigger picture as well as the telling details. Television is going through a long-overdue creative and business evolution and this is the first book that truly captures the moment, the metamorphosis, and the challenges…and does it in what feels like real time. If television writing is a calling, than “Creating the Series” is the gospel.
The Bradypedia: The Complete Reference Guide to Television’s The Brady Bunch by Erika Woehlk. There have been dozens of books written about The Brady Bunch and its many sequels, spin-offs, and reboots. This one is not the best and it’s not the worst. I’d say it falls somewhere in the middle. The bulk of the book is an episode guide to the Bradyverse… with plot descriptions of every episode of every Brady program that starred the original cast, a list that includes The Brady Bunch, The Brady Kids, The Brady Bunch Variety Show, The Brady Brides, the reunion movies, and the misguided The Bradys drama. There’s also a “character encyclopedia” with descriptions of every character who ever appeared in the shows, biographies of the core cast, and a catalog of all the Brady Bunch songs & records (as well as other memorabilia). As far as providing new information, there’s not a whole lot beyond general trivia, at least when it comes to the production, writing, directing, etc. of the various series. Nor is there much in the way of interviews to provide an inside perspective. There are some interesting projects touched on in the section about unproduced spin-offs and continuations…but that’s also where you’ll find a big error. The author states that the proposed spin-off “Kelly’s Kids,” which aired as a last season episode of The Brady Bunch, “never came to fruition” as a series beyond the pilot. She’s wrong. Many years after The Brady Bunch ended, “Kelly’s Kids” became the CBS series Together We Stand. Writer/producer Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of The Brady Bunch, talked about it at length in an interview with me…and in many other press interviews… and it’s always been common knowledge among Brady fans and followers of his career. I’m surprised that the author is unaware of it (in fact, it’s covered in detail in one of the books that I review below). That quibble aside, the book is a handy, worthwhile resource for Brady fans.
Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980s and Single Season Sitcoms 1948-1979, both by Bob Leszczak. I could swear that I reviewed Single Season Sitcoms 1948-1979 here when it came out in 2012, but since I can’t find the review, and just in case I never actually reviewed it, let me just say that I loved it. It’s one of my favorite TV reference books. Like the title says, it focuses on comedies that didn’t survive to celebrate a second birthday, a TV niche so obscure that it’s irresistable to me. I hoped, but never expected, that Leszczak would do a sequel. I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. Leszczak has returned with the marvelous Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980s…but the book is so much more than the straight-forward title suggests (though I would have been satisfied with just what the title promises). Yes, it’s a encyclopedia of every single-season sitcom of the decade…and provides all the rich details you could hope for (cast and crew, synopsis, air dates, episode titles)… but there’s so much more. The book is full of interviews with actors and key creative personnel (writers, producers, directors) who give us the surprisingly candid, inside scoop on the development, production and demise of the shows.
Baby Boom producer Charles Shyer shares, for example, that it was hell working with star Kate Jackson. “Things got so tense that Kate quit and flew to Aspen. The studio begged us to cajole her back with balloons and flowers, but we weren’t going for it.” The feelings can go both ways. One of the actors on Hello Larry says that “yes, McLean Stevenson was extremely difficult to work with. However, in light of the bad to mediocre scripts, I felt he was right.”
Hey, wait a minute, didn’t Hello Larry last two seasons? Yes, it did, which brings me to one of the great bonuses in this book. There’s a lengthy appendix entitled “Shows Invited Back for a Truncated or Vastly Different Second Season” that covers scores of comedies that returned for a second season (and in some cases many more seasons) in a very different form, either completely reformatted and/or recast. It’s like getting two books for the price of one. A good example of one such revamped series is Goodnight Miss Bliss, a comedy starring Hayley Mills as a school teacher, that was canceled after one season. The show returned with the students and minus the teacher as the Saturday morning comedy Saved by the Bell and became a big success.
But wait, there’s more. Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980s also covers many one-hour shows with comedic elements, like Tenspeed and Brownshoe, Fitz & Bones, Foul Play, and Breaking Away to name a few. It’s all written in a breezy, immensely readable tone that only occasionally gets snarky (Of The Charmings, he wrote: “The setup for this series takes longer to explain than the program lasted..”)
I love this book even more than the first one. The only downside to these two terrific TV reference books is that you might get sticker shock when you go out to buy them. That’s because they are from McFarland & Company, a fine publishing company that caters to the library market, which is so narrow that they have to price their books high to make any money. The paperback edition of the first, 250 page volume is $45, which is absurd and unjustifiable outside of the library universe, and the price for the 272 page follow-up is $38, which is only slightly less ridiculous for the general consumer. But the good news is that you can get the Kindle editions of these books for $14 each, which is affordable and worth every penny.
I hope Single Season Sitcoms of the 1990s and a book on Single Season Dramas are on the way.
The Case of the Alliterative Attorney: A Guide to the Perry Mason TV Series and TV Movies by Bill Sullivan and Ed Robertson. The mammoth, 700-page size of this substantial TV reference work befits the big man Raymond Burr and his long-running series. It’s a great, breezily-written book from two solid pros that’s well-sourced with original interviews and is full of detailed, useful information on each episode of the original series and the TV movies… including “expert testimony” from the writers, actors, directors and producers. There’s something here for everyone — the casual fan, students of television history, and anyone interested in the machinations behind the production of a successful television series. My one quibble is that only two-and-a-half pages are devoted to The New Perry Mason (I should disclose those pages include a quote from me and I am thanked in the acknowledgments). I wish the authors had done a detailed drill-down into the show, discussing its doomed production and analyzing its episodes with the same sharp focus that they gave the Burr-centric programs. Then again, I may be the one person still living who was a fan of the reboot. This is a must-have for any Perry Mason fan and belongs on the shelf of any TV reference library.
The Streets of San Francisco by James Rosin. Usually I steer clear of Rosin’s TV books, which are notoriously sloppy, slim, cheap-looking, poorly researched and pretty much worthless as reference material for anyone with access to Google (and outrageously over-priced as well). But since Brash Books, the publishing company that I founded with Joel Goldman, owns the underlying rights to the TV series, I felt an obligation to read this. I’m delighted to say that the book is pretty good (though it’s poorly copyedited and fact-checked. For example, he lists Michael Douglas as a cast member in an episode long after he left the series). It’s filled with interesting production information gleaned from interviews with the cast and crew, some freshly done by the author himself while other quotes are lifted from previously published books and articles. It’s an enjoyable, informative read for fans of the show as well as students of television that benefits enormously from the insights provided by writer-producer John Wilder. I especially liked the details on script development.
There’s actually real meat-on-the-bones this time and, I hope, it’s a sign that Rosin is taking his TV scholarship, and the books he publishes, much more seriously. My only reservations, aside from the sloppy proofing and sticker shock, is that I wish he’d examined in much greater detail the creation, production and demise of Bert D’Angelo: Superstar, the short-lived spin-off from Streets of San Francisco and the development, writing, and production of 1991 revival movie, Back to the Streets of San Francisco. He also makes no mention of the written, but unshot, second Back to the Streets of San Francisco movie (I once had a copy of William Robert Yates’ script because, in full disclosure, he was considering me & William Rabkin as writers for the third one) or the 2007 written, but unproduced, CBS pilot for a proposed reboot.
Who is The Falcon by Ian Dickerson. I am cheating a bit including this book in an overview of TV reference books since The Falcon didn’t make much of an impact on the small screen…certainly not the way it did on the big screen. But it’s still a fascinating read, covering a character few people today are familiar with and that many dismiss, perhaps unjustly, as a blatant and crass rip-off of The Saint. That said, it’s probably thanks to the many associations between The Falcon and The Saint films, including sharing the same studio and actors, that the character is remembered at all. It certainly explains why renowned Saint expert Ian Dickerson tackled the book, which works as both the business and creative story behind the success and failure of a franchise character and makes it fascinating reading whether you are familiar with The Falcon or not.
I recently read the stories of two TV celebrities.. one a star in front of the camera (Jan-Michael Vincent), one a star behind it (Steven Bochco). One is a biography, the other a memoir…and both were fascinating.
Jan-Michael Vincent: Edge of Greatness by David Grove
Grove missed his calling. He should have been a novelist. Thanks to Grove’s vivid prose and keen eye for emotional detail, Edge of Greatness reads much more like a tragic novel than the standard biography of a mildly talented actor’s rapid rise and horrific downfall. This is the all-too-familiar story of a self-destructive actor undone by all the temptations of Hollywood — sex, drugs, alcohol — and his own hubris.
The book tracks Vincent from his humble beginnings in the central California farming community of Hanford, through his years of stardom, and up to his current squalor, which is physical, mental and financial. As Grove puts it:
“A black Mustang convertible and a patch of roses out front offer the only clues to his past life, when his aquamarine eyes, chiseled features, and sun-streaked hair sang of creamy sand and sweet sex. He has long ceased being beautiful or strong.”
Vincent today is confined to a wheelchair. He has lost a leg, the result of peripheral artery disease, and he struggles with diabetes, epilepsy, and the ravages of “countless episodes of alcoholic poisoning and toxic shock.” Grove goes on to say that Vincent “barely weights 100 pounds, his teeth dangle in his jaw, brittle and emaciated” and that the condition of his liver “has moved far beyond the simple characterization of cirrhosis. It’s a celebration of rot.”
And all of those quotes are just from page one, effectively setting the stage for the tragic story to come. Sure, he gives away the ending, but it puts the actor’s entire rise and fall into horrific perspective that haunts the book. What makes this tragedy compelling reading, as opposed to the literary equivalent of watching a train wreck, is Grove’s writing and reporting skills. Perhaps that’s due to this startling admission from the author, at the very end of the book, when he asks himself if he likes Vincent:
I don’t like myself, which is what we have in common and why I was drawn to him.
And he goes on to conclude:
It’s obvious now that he was not born; he was invented. I thought there would be more, but this is it. He got what he deserved.
Wow. It’s hard to turn your eyes away.
Truth is a Total Defense by Steven Bochco
Bochco is one of the most talented, influential, and deservedly celebrated writer-producers in the history of television. It’s not hyperbole to say he has reshaped the medium, not just through the ground-breaking dramas that he wrote and co-created (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), but also by virtue of the many amazing writers that he discovered and nurtured (like David E. Kelley and David Milch). I’m among his biggest fans, speaking both as an appreciative viewer and a TV writer/producer who was inspired by him (and yet never rose to anywhere near his level of success, creatively or otherwise). That said, while there is much to learn from his revealing memoir, this self-published book is difficult to read, not because of the subject matter, but because of crippling editorial issues.
But let’s talk about the pluses first. The memoir works not just as the story of one writer’s rise through the television industry — from Universal Television staff writer to a celebrity show runner — but also as insider’s look at the massive changes that have happened in the industry and how it has affected programing. It’s also an in depth, inside look at how television shows are conceived, developed, written, and produced from the creative, business and political sides. Bochco not only examines how his shows succeeded… but also how and why they failed. And he can be brutally honest about it.
He goes into detail about his working and personal relationships with actors, directors, network and studio executives…and doesn’t always come out looking very good himself (more about that later). There are many memorable stories in the book — one of my favorites is the one about why he fired actor Daniel Benzali from Murder One. All I’ll say is that it comes down to when and where Benzali wanted to take a crap. Another favorite is the story of his encounter with William Paley, who ran CBS. Those are just a few of the great anecdotes in book that, as far as I know, haven’t been shared before. But Bochco also goes into more well-known controversies, like replacing David Caruso on NYPD Blue, and talks candidly about his intimate working and personal relationship with writer David Milch, who he discovered on Hill Street Blues and who battled with many demons, including a gambling addiction.
Now let’s go into the negatives, which are substantial and detract from what otherwise could have been a great book, perhaps one of the best ever written about the TV business.
The book is amateurishly produced on every level. The title of the book, at least on the cover and on the spine, is Truth Is a Total Defense. The title of the book on the two title pages, however, is Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television. That’s a minor quibble, but it’s your first clue that this is not a professionally published book (it’s also missing a copyright page, which is pretty astonishing in itself).
Bochco is a very wealthy man, as he often mentions in the book. So I don’t understand why didn’t spend the money to have the book professionally edited. For a guy who prides himself on his attention to detail in his shows, he doesn’t exhibit the same care when it comes to his book. He appears to have done little or no copyediting. For example, titles of shows are not italicized or in quotation marks… though sometimes, for no reason at all, they are in all-caps. It’s a very strange choice and makes it difficult to read the book.
Typos and other errors abound. He refers to John Wells, executive producer of ER as “John Welles.” He even misspells the names of characters he created, alternating between “Goldblume” and “Goldbloom” when talking about the character from Hill Street Blues.
There are also a lot of factual mistakes. For instance, Bochco was a story editor on McMillan and Wife, which he describes as Rock Hudson playing “the D.A. of San Francisco” when, in fact, he played the Chief of Police. He mentions releasing David Caruso from a clause in his post-NYPD Blue agreement, one that prevented him from doing another series for five years, to let him do a CBS pilot. He says the CBS pilot didn’t sell, but that the next show Caruso did was CSI Miami, and it was a big success. Actually, the CBS pilot did sell. It was called Michael Hayes, and the series ran for 21 episodes before being cancelled. There are errors like this throughout the book that could have been easily avoided if he’d hired a professional copy editor.
There’s also an interesting omission. He talks about nearly every show he worked on at Universal Television… and says the first show he ever created was Griff in 1973. And yet he never mentions that in 1969 he co-created The New Doctors segment of The Bold Ones, the most successful series spoke in that drama wheel. I wonder why he completely skipped over that.
He does something in the book he would never do on his TV shows — he uses lots of cliches, like “moved so fast our heads were spinning,” “it was no day at the beach,” “I didn’t want to rock the boat,” “necessity is the mother of invention,” etc. It’s laziness he would never tolerate in a script but lets slide in the book. I mention it not to be petty, but because its a sharp contrast to what he says throughout the book about his standards of good writing.
Structurally, the book is mess. He starts with the moment, a few years ago, that he learned that he had leukemia, and then goes into his disappoint and anger that his sister wouldn’t donate bone marrow. From there, he shifts into the story of his TV career, jumping forward, backwards, and sideways so it’s often hard to keep track of where you are in his career and personal timeline. And then he returns to his leukemia, and his difficult battle over the disease. As part of that story, he shared the emails he wrote to his family and friends while he was being treated…some of them cringe-inducing, particularly those where he rips his sister yet again for not giving her bone marrow to him. Is this his autobiography? A book about his career in television? Or a book about his battle with leukemia? He can’t seem to decide. This is where a strong editor would have really helped the book.
He likes to depict himself as a nice guy, someone who is supportive of other writers and who strives to bring out the best in everyone around him. Often, he probably is the person he describes…and there are plenty of examples of that kindness and supportiveness in the book. But he also clearly delights in trashing people, particularly network and studio executives, some of them by name, who had the temerity to disagree with him or pass along notes from their bosses. Many of the people he trashes are small fish, individuals far less powerful and wealthy than he is….and, as a result, he comes across as a bully taking advantage of his stature to beat on those who aren’t able to defend themselves.
He repeatedly claims he doesn’t carry a grudges, but he clearly does. He rips into his first wife’s boyfriend, actors Kiel Martin, Daniel J. Travanti, and Daniel Benzali, writers Mike Kozoll (co-creator of Hill Street Blues), Terry Louise Fisher (co-creator of L.A. Law), Eric Lodel (co-creator of Murder in the First) and David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue) to name just a few of the people who get singled out for his righteous and often brutal wrath. Some of them undoubtedly deserve his harsh words, and this is his memoir after all, but he doesn’t come out looking particularly good himself in many of these stories. He also repeatedly savages, perhaps rightfully so, his sister for not donating bone marrow to him when he needed it (also trashing her husband, actor Alan Rachins, in what can best be described as collateral damage).
So when all is said and done, yes, Truth is a Total Defense, is a fascinating book for anyone interested in Steven Bochco and the business of television. There’s is much to learn from the book about writing, show running, and the television business. But it’s also a deeply flawed work that’s in desperate need of professional editing.
I’m a sucker for TV books, even those about shows I didn’t watch or don’t particularly like…because, often, I can learn something new about the development, writing and production of TV series that I didn’t know before despite my own experience in the biz. Here are some short reviews of three recent releases.
Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series Vol. One by Marc Cushman. Jacobs-Brown Publishers. This is a monumental work of TV history…one of the best TV reference books ever written. That’s no surprise, since it’s from the same people who did These Are the Voyages, the three volume, definitive work about the TV series Star Trek and that is also a stunning achievement. I didn’t think that series of books could be topped or even matched. I was wrong. This nearly 700 page paperback covers the first season of Lost in Space, and as a bonus, the development of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Irwin Allen series that preceded this one.
I am not a fan of Lost in Space, but that didn’t limit my enjoyment or appreciation of this book one bit (though I have to admit I haven’t finished it). The book is a remarkable achievement that exhaustively covers every detail of the creation, writing and production of the show, relying on interviews, memos, scripts, letter, photos… the amount of material they uncovered and examined is incredible and, at times, overwhelming. And yet, it doesn’t feel like overkill and it’s never dull. The author has an engaging style that rises above similar books.
Each episode is examined in-depth, from idea, through all stages of production, right down to the ratings and critical reaction to the final airing. What makes this book even more special is that, unlike Star Trek, the authors aren’t following a well-trodden path…so much of this is new and fascinating information. Yes, this show has been examined before, in documentaries and articles, but never in such detail and, surprisingly, with such objectivity. The authors aren’t slavishly devoted fans… they don’t hesistate to point out how awful some of the episodes were.
This book is a must-stock for any library and a must-read for anyone interested in the business behind the TV business. You don’t have to be a fan of Lost in Space, or have ever watched a single episode, to benefit from this great book. I can’t wait for the volumes 2 & 3.
Cop Shows: A Critical History of Police Dramas on Television by Roger Sabin & others. McFarland & Co. I had high hopes for this book because I’m a huge fan of cop shows. I was expecting to glean some new insights into familiar and obscure shows, and new details about how these shows were made, the impact they had on culture, etc. What I got instead was a very scholarly, very broad series of superficial essays about individual shows that revealed nothing new…besides the authors’ opinions, which I don’t really care about. I was also dismayed by the sloppy errors, which made me wonder if they actually watched the shows they were writing about…or were simply lazy in their research. For instance, in their chapter on Hawaii Five-O, they make a passing reference to Stephen J Cannell’s unsold reboot pilot, which was shot but never aired. They say that Gary Busey starred as McGarrett. In fact, nobody played McGarrett in the pilot…and Busey was co-lead with Russell Wong. This information is easily found on the Internet and in other reference books. Later, in their short summary on TJ Hooker, they say “CBS picked up the show’s final season, which was a marked by grittier plotlines and a location shift to Chicago. .. the changes proved deeply unpopular with fans.” That is absolutely wrong. The final episode of the ABC season was set in Chicago, and was a pilot for a potential reboot, but when the show moved to CBS, they kept the original concept, setting, and storylines (going so far as to only use car chases from previous episodes instead of shooting new ones!). The only thing that changed was that Adrian Zmed was dropped from the cast. So not only are they factually wrong, but the conclusions they came to about “grittier storylines” and the audience dissatisfaction with them is total fiction. If that is an example of their academic rigor, I grade this thesis a C-.
Seinfeldia: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything. by Jennifer Keishan Armstrong. Simon and Schuster. I totally get why this book has become an unlikely bestseller. For one thing, it’s about one of the most popular and beloved sitcoms in TV history. But most of all, it’s because the book is so readable…so entertaining…that it almost feels more like a novel about a show than a book about TV history. Even so, there’s lots of meat here for people interested in how the TV business works, how a TV series develops and evolves, and, most of all, how a series is written. What this book is really about is the writing of a TV series and, as a writer myself, I found it irresistible and fascinating. There have been other books written about Seinfeld…but none of them are as good, or as useful, or as educational as this one. You should also grab Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, her terrific book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show.