I’m delighted that my book The Best TV Shows That Never Werewas published this week in slick ebook and trade paperback editions. But it’s not a new book. It was originally published back in 1991, following the enormous success of my big, fat hardcover Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1989 (which is coming out very soon as an ebook, for the first time ever, and for the first time in a new, single volume trade paperback edition). The original plan by Citadel Press back in ’91 was simply to release that book as a paperback. But when that proved too costly, the publisher decided they wanted a slim “Best Of” edition instead. I thought it was a mistake, but reluctantly went along with the idea, figuring it might be the first in a series of books. A pilot of its own, so-to-speak…
They gave the book the unwieldy and misleading title Unsold TV Pilots: The Almost Complete Guide to Everything You Never Saw on TV, 1955-1990. Even so, the book was a big success and established the format for the two, hour-long network TV specials that would follow: The Greatest Shows You Never Saw on CBS and The Best TV Shows That Never Were on ABC. I figured TV specials made much more sense than book sequels, and were also a lot more lucrative financially, so that was where I focused my energy (that said, the section in this book on TV series revivals did inspire me to write a spin-off book on the subject, which was published in 1993, and that I’ll soon be re-releasing, updated and revised, as Television Fast Forward).
There have been hundreds of great … and truly terrible… unsold pilots in the years since this book was first published, but I haven’t added any of them to this edition, though I’ve added some new information here and there. Perhaps I’ll do a new, sequel volume some day…or, more likely, another TV special. Until then, I hope you enjoy the 300 pilots in this book!
Bud Flanek is a rumpled, amiable, deceptively low-key homicide detective on the Owensboro, Kentucky police force, the hero of three short, funny mystery movies that now have their own YouTube channel.
Nobody set out do a series of movies about the character… it was a happy accident. It began when Zev Buffman invited my friend David Breckman, the outrageously talented MONK writer-producer-director, to be a guest at the International Mystery Writers Festival at Riverpark Center in Owensboro a few years back.
David came up with the brilliant, insane idea of writing, producing, and directing a short film using primarily local talent … all during the course of the festival… which was, if memory serves, ran just four days. Amazingly, he pulled it off. The result was Murder in Kentucky, a twenty minute short starring Todd Reynolds as an unnamed homicide detective who solves a murder that happens during the rehearsal for a live-radio theater show. I loved it. But for reasons too complicated to go into, mostly technical, the movie only screened once and wasn’t seen again for several years (but don’t worry, there’s a happy ending to the tale).
Not long after that, Zev invited me to write & direct a short film in Owensboro. I decided to adapt my short story Remaindered, which had been published to some acclaim in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and was about a once-famous author on a miserable, last-ditch book tour that leads to murder. I cast Todd to play Bud Flanek, a homicide detective who appears late in the story. Although Flanek wasn’t intended to be the same character as the one Todd played in Murder in Kentucky, that’s what he became, main because he was the same actor playing a cop in the same town in the same wardrobe. And it helped that my cop had pretty much the same personality and attitude as David’s unnamed lawman.
Remaindered became a hit on the national film festival circuit, winning awards and rave reviews, including praise from writer-producer William Link, co-creator of Columbo, who loved Todd’s performance and christened Flanek “The Kentucky Columbo.” Wow.
So when Riverpark asked me to do another film, I knew I had to bring Todd back as Flanek. I adapted another short story of mine, Bumsicle, and recrafted it with Todd Reynolds in mind. Unlike Murder in Kentucky and Remaindered, though, Flanek was very much the center of this story, which was darker than the other two, but still had a few laughs.
Bumsicle also became a hit on the festival circuit and garnered lots of praise. After a year on the road, we brought the film back to Owensboro and screened it outdoors in a triple bill with Murder in Kentucky and Remaindered, drawing a crowd of over 500 people.
After that, we knew we had something special and decided to create a channel devoted to Flanek on YouTube. But first we had to tweak Murder in Kentucky a bit, which had poor sound (due to cheap equipment) and temp music lifted from Bonnie Raitt (due to the very hurried production schedule… did I mention it was written, produced, and shot in just four days?). So Firelight Entertainment Group in Hawesville Kentucky, with whom I shot Bumsicle and the Dead Man music videos, remastered the sound on Murder in Kentucky, and replaced the music. To tie the short into the series, I asked singer-songwriter Matt Branham, who did the score for my two films, to write & perform a new end theme song expressly about Flanek…”Nothing Fun About Murder”
..he even manages to mention Monk!
Now the Flanek channel is live with all three movies. Our hope is to whip up enough enthusiasm for the films to merit the funding of more short Flanek mysteries, perhaps even a webseries of 20 minute episodes. It’s in your hands.
Two new books from McFarland & Co. are a feast for TV history buffs.
Roy Hugginsby Paul Green explores in great detail the TV career of writer/producer Roy Huggins, creator (or co-creator) of such classic shows as Maverick, The Fugitive, 77 Sunset Strip, Toma, Baretta, The Rockford Files, The Bold Ones: The Lawyers, and Run For Your Life, as well as the driving force behind the creation of the “TV movie.” He also produced many other series, including The Virginian, Cheyenne, Hunter, Kraft Suspense Theater, and Alias Smith and Jones, to name a few. The book is based on dozens of personal interviews, Huggins’ own unpublished memoirs, newspaper & magazine articles, as well as my own, six-hour video interview with Huggins for The Archive of American Television.
It’s a great book, exploring all of the creative issues, production details, political machinations (studio and network), and personnel matters (his relationships with actors, writers, producers etc), that shaped the weekly series, TV movies, pilots and mini-series that Huggins made as a producer, studio chief, and later as a hired gun. It’s exactly the kind of book that I wish somebody would write about Stephen J. Cannell, Glen A. Larson, Fred Silverman, Steven Bochco, Bruce Geller, Goff & Roberts, Levinson & Link, and so many other TV producers.
Green clearly admires Huggins, but is not so enamored of his subject that he ignores the producer’s faults, mistakes and failures. This is a serious, well-researched, information-packed reference work that is nonetheless an easy and engaging read. You don’t have to be familiar with Huggins’ shows to find the behind-the-scenes stories both fascinating and informative. This book isn’t just for fans of Roy Huggins or his shows — it’s a must-read for students of TV history and anyone interested in a career as a TV series show runner. It’s hands-down one of the best books ever written about a TV producer…or being one.
Everyone knows about George Burns the actor and comic, but few people these days are aware of his influence as a TV producer and head of a successful production company. Much like Desi Arnaz, another major actor/producer/studio chief of the 1950s and 1960s, Burns did ground-breaking work that is still influencing TV writers and producers today. That’s why Richard Irvin’s George Burns Television Productions: The Series and Pilots 1950-1981 is a much overdue and necessary piece of TV scholarship.
Burns famously broke the fourth wall with his Burns & Allen Show, about a showbiz couple with a TV show playing a showbiz couple with a TV show. He also produced such series as The Bob Cummings Show and Mr. Ed, and many of the writers, directors and producers that he worked with and supported went on to create huge hit series (like Paul Henning, who went on to create The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres). Burns and his company refined the art of using episodes as spin-off pilots, though none of the ones he did on Burns and Allen, or on Mr. Ed or The Bob Cummings Show, ever took off.
Irvin’s fine book delves extensively into every business and creative aspect of the Burns & Allen Show, the Bob Cummings Show, and The People’s Choice, as well as every single project that Burns’ production company ever produced…every series, every pilot, and even the stuff that never got made. It’s one of the few books about the history of a TV production company and its a strong one…and for that reason alone, Irvin and McFarland & Co are to be commended. This is clearly a labor of love for author and publisher…because outside of a few diehard TV historians, and TV geeks like me, I can’t imagine there’s much, if any, market for a book with such a narrow focus. Unlike Roy Huggins, this is not a book that is a must-read for scholars or wanna-be TV show runners. You’d have to already be interested in the shows that George Burns produced, or in unsold pilots in general, or in 1950s and 60s TV history, to find this book worthwhile. For me, it was a home run. I loved it.
A note on my biases/possible conflicts of interest: I bought my copy of Roy Huggins, because I have a strong interest in his work. I’ve admired Huggins since I was a kid. I interviewed Huggins many times during my career as a journalist. In fact, I went into this expecting to be disappointed, to find very little “meat,” lots of errors, and to learn little that I didn’t already know. I was very pleased to be wrong. I’ve also worked with Jo Swerling Jr., who is quoted frequently in the book, during my time as a writer/producer at Stephen J. Cannell Productions. And, finally,I was a writer on Hunter, but several seasons after Huggins produced the show.
I received a review copy of George Burns Television Productions from McFarland & Co, which published my reference books Unsold Television Pilots, Television Series Revivals, and Science Fiction Filmmaking in the 1980s over twenty years ago.
Last week, CBS picked up two series for next fall — CSI: Cyber and NCIS: New Orleans — that were shot as so-called “back-door pilots,” embedded in episodes of existing series. CSI:Cyber aired as an episode of CSI and NCIS: New Orleans aired as an episode of NCIS (which, itself, began as a back-door pilot as an episode of JAG).
A back-door pilot is a way to save money on making a pilot, a sample episode of a proposed TV series. Since standalone pilots that don’t lead to a seires cost millions of dollars, have no commerical value, and will usually never air anywhere, shooting them as an episode of an existing series allows studios to recoup their costs from the syndication revenue of a hit series. It’s a practice that has been going on for fifty years — The Andy Griffith Show began as a back-door pilot episode of The Danny Thomas Show.
The problem is, backdoor pilots usually end up being one of the worst episodes of whatever series is hosting them. That’s because the stars of the host series, by design, have to take a back seat to the stars of the pilot…and let’s face it, people aren’t tuning in to see the pilot characters, they are tuning in to see the characters they already know and love. Star Trek ended it’s second season with Assignment Earth, a back-door pilot starring Robert Lansing, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended it’s second season with a back-door pilot for a series with Bill Daily. Both pilots failed to sell.
The networks and producers can’t really disguise backdoor pilots — because they can’t function as pilots without being pilots, introducing us to the characters and franchise of the proposed show. But it’s a practice that has worked.
Some of hit shows that began as backdoor pilots (also known, some years back, as “nested spin-offs”) include Diagnosis Murder, NCIS, CSI: Miami, Maude, SWAT, Petticoat Junction, Laverne & Shirley, Barnaby Jones, Empty Nest, Knots Landing, and Stargate: Atlantis.
The many, many shows that have hosted one or more backdoor pilots include Magnum PI, Cosby, Spenser: For Hire, Star Trek, Vegas, Bones, Married With Children, Gunsmoke, The Practice, Charlie’s Angels, Barnaby Jones, NCIS, Ironside, Criminal Minds, Murder She Wrote, Smallville, House and The Rockford Files (which had four of’em!). Back in the day, anthology shows like Zane Grey Theater, Dick Powell Theater, and Police Story (which begat Police Woman, Joe Forrester and David Cassidy: Man Undercover) were often used for back-door pilots.
Bill Rabkin and I were the executive producers of Diagnosis Murder with Fred Silverman, the man who once ran CBS, ABC and NBC and was known as the “king of the spin-off.” Since Diagnosis Murder was a nested spinoff of Jake and the Fatman, which itself was a nested spin-off of Matlock, Silverman was a big believer in backdoor pilots and insisted that we do at least one every season. Diagnosis Murder tried at least six of them that I know of and they all went nowhere.
We personally did three of them, including Whistlers, basically a tame Lethal Weapon with women, and The Chief, starring Fred Dryer as the leader of the LAPD. Here’s the main title sequence for Whistlers:
and the sales pitch for The Chief:
We were very clever with how we structured The Chief as a back-door pilot…and it was the only one of the Diagnosis Murder backdoor pilots that actually had a shot getting picked up.
We wrote it as a tw0-hour, sweeps episode of the series…but crafted it in such a way that we could edit it down to one-hour and cut almost all of the Diagnosis Murder cast out of the show for internal sales purposes
Fred Dryer was great in the part…and newcomer Neal McDonough had real star power (since proven on Band of Brothers, Justified, Desperate Housewives, etc.). We were sure we were on to something. The two-hour movie was one of the highest rated shows of the week, #12 if memory serves, and when we had the one-hour version tested, the scores were among the best Fred Silverman had ever seen. Silverman was convinced we were a lock for the fall schedule.
Unfortunately, this was one of the rare cases where ratings and testing didn’t mean as much to the network as personality…nobody at CBS wanted to work with Fred Dryer (which begs the question, why did CBS let us cast him, and why did they pay the “pilot breakage” on his salary for the guest shot, if they had no intention of greenlighting a series with him in the lead?).
But Silverman wasn’t concerned. With the numbers and testing we had, and with Dryer’s successful track record with the hit series Hunter, he was convinced we’d have a sale in a matter of weeks with another network.
We took it to every network and pitched it face-to-face to their presidents (that was the power of working with Silverman), and every one of them had some personal reason for not wanting to be in business with Dryer…and seemed to take great pleasure in passing on the project in the room to his implacable face.
As it turned out, a couple of years later CBS did a very simlar show (The District) with great success and a star reportedly as difficult as Dryer reportedly was (Craig T. Nelson)…and NBC ended up reviving Hunter for six episodes and discovered, or so we heard, that Dryer was even more reportedly difficult than he’d ever reportedly been before.
I love main title sequences, so coming up with a list of the 10 Best TV Main Title Sequences of All-Time was no easy feat. But here goes, in no particular order:
Game of Thrones
Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Twilight Zone
Law & Order
The Outer Limits
To me, these are the sequences that best combine great visuals and a killer theme with a clear statement of the series franchise. Also, every one of these sequences became instant and stylistically influential icons. (Note: The Mary Tyler Moore Show sequence in the video playlist below is *not* the version I would have used… but it was the only one available on YouTube)
I used to love all of those Quinn Martin-produced cop shows when I was a kid…and they remain a guilty pleasure of mine today. Here are fifteen main title sequences from Quinn Martin’s shows…14 series and one unsold pilot.
Tales of the Unexpected (Full Episode)
A Man Called Sloane (Full Episode)
The New Breed
The Streets of San Francisco
Operation Runaway (Full Pilot Movie)
12 O’Clock High
Escapade An unsold pilot — Quinn Martins attempt to remake THE AVENGERS.
Reboots of classic TV series are all the rage now. Here are the original main titles sequences of eleven popular series…and the opening themes of their re-imagined, re-booted, and sometimes regurgitated reincarnations.