Four Star Television Productions: A History of the Business, Series and Pilots of the Iconic Television Production Company: 1952-1989 by Richard Irvin. This is a terrific reference book about a ground-breaking and innovative television production company that virtually nobody remembers any more. And yet TV producers and studios are still strongly influenced by the way Four Star Television did business – specifically how they used their TV series as cost-effective platforms to create more shows.
Four Star Television was a partnership between actors Dick Powell, David Niven, Charles Boyer and producer Don Sharpe. The company began by producing anthologies and came up with the brilliant notion of making as many of those stories as they could into pilots – sample episodes of proposed series. The strategy worked brilliantly.
For example, their anthology Zane Grey Theater begat the western series The Rifleman, Black Saddle, The Westerner, and Johnny Ringo. Four Star applied the same spin-off strategy to their episodic series. For example, The Rifleman begat Law of the Plainsman. The series Trackdown spun-off Wanted Dead or Alive, which begat Stagecoach West. Episodes-as-pilots are now known as “backdoor pilots,” “planted spin-offs,” and “nested pilots.” Producers like Norman Lear, Aaron Spelling, Dick Wolf, Donald Belisario, and Greg Berlanti would follow Four Star’s example with great success.
Four Star also perfected “the wheel,” attracting big stars to do a TV series by only asking them to commit to three-to-six episodes a season, a concept that would be emulated later in shows like Name of the Game, The Bold Ones, Search, and the NBC Mystery Movie.
The book catalogs every Four Star series, and the concepts of every single “backdoor pilot,” sold and unsold, in fascinating detail. Irvin also charts the rise and fall of the production company, the business successes and missteps. He is, quite simply, the best TV reference book writer/researcher in the field today…consistently providing a treasure trove of information in an easy-going, entertaining, highly-readable writing style.
My only problem with the book is that it lacks a comprehensive index, something that’s essential in work of this magnitude and detail. It’s a baffling oversight, especially given the software tools out there that make this once incredibly laborious task a lot easier.
That drawback aside, this book is a fascinating, essential, and brilliant work of TV scholarship and should be a part of any television reference library collection.
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.
I’m delighted that my book The Best TV Shows That Never Were was 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!
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 guess we dodged a bullet.