A Big New Reference Book on Unsold Pilots

The Encyclopedia of Television Pilots, 1937-2019 by Vincent Terrace. This is the second edition of his encyclopedia, covering 2470 broadcast pilots, and it’s a big step up from the previous book. For the new edition, he’s added two useful appendices — one on Series Pilot Films (pilots movies that aired and led to series) and another on Series Spin-offs (TV series that begat other series). It’s a terrific book. And if you combine it with his recently-released Encyclopedia of Unaired Television Pilots, 1945-2018, it represents an astonishing achievement in television research and the definitive work on unsold pilots to date.Most of the problems I had with the previous edition of the Encyclopedia of Television Pilots have been solved with this new edition and with publication of his Unaired Pilots book…but some persist.

For example, Terrace still organizes pilots alphabetically rather than by the season/year they were considered by the networks for the fall schedules…so it’s missing the cultural, creative, and strategic context at play that’s crucial to understanding why a particular pilot was developed and produced by a network. Although an unsold pilot may have aired in 1977, that doesn’t mean that’s the year/season it is was developed and produced. Many pilots were aired years after they were made. He could have organized the book by season and also included an index that listed the pilots alphabetically, with their entry number. The alphabetical arrangement of the book makes the book far less useful than it could be for TV producers and network and studio development executives…a large audience outside of libraries and universities that could afford this book.Also the index doesn’t include the titles of TV series that hosted unsold pilots for proposed spin-offs (aka “nested pilots”)…so if you wanted to look up all the unsold pilots that aired as episodes of, say, Kraft Suspense Theatre, The Untouchables, Magnum PI, Bob Hope Chrysler Theater, Diagnosis Murder, The Rifleman, or Mr. Ed, you couldn’t. You’d have to slog through the book and find each one. And I wish each listing included the studio or production company that produced the pilots…which is invaluable information for TV historians, particularly those researching a particular studio or production company.

There are also unsold pilots that are missing, particularly among the nested pilots. For example, the final episode of George Segal’s 1988 series Murphy’s Law was a nested pilot for an unsold Joan Severance spin-off and in his second Appendix on Series spin-offs, he misses that Diagnosis Murder was a spin-off from Jake and the Fatman and that Dirty Sally was a spin-off of Gunsmoke. (Richard Irvin’s book The Forgotten Desi and Lucy TV Projects includes several nested pilots and spin-offs that Terrace missed in this book). But that’s a minor quibble. It’s inevitable that some pilots will fall through the cracks. It’s very, very hard to keep track of all the shows in development, particularly those that are snuck onto the air as episodes of existing series…or that are aired in only some markets in the dead of summer in the wee hours of the night. The networks have become incredibly secretive over the last twenty years about their pilots… their R&D…even forcing producers to sign NDAs, limiting circulation of scripts, and refusing to allow unsold pilots to be seen outside of their screening rooms. In the face of all that. he’s probably succeeded in finding and listing 98% of the scripted, network pilots that have ever been produced, which is remarkable.

However, a few of the missing pilots raise a troubling question. How many of the omissions are intentional?

For example, only one of the half-a-dozen aired, episodic drama pilots for major networks that I wrote and produced are in the book, which I have to assume is a conscious decision by Terrace, perhaps based on animosity he feels towards me and my book Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1989 (I assume that Mystery 101, the one pilot of mine that slipped into his book, in his appendix on Series Pilot films, happened because he didn’t realize that I co-wrote the pilot and co-created the series). As a result, a researcher looking for all of Fred Dryer’s unsold pilots wouldn’t know that he and Neal McDonough starred in The Chief, an unsold pilot that aired as a two-hour episode Diagnosis Murder. Or someone researching an article, paper or book on nested pilots wouldn’t know that Sal Viscuso and Kate Burton starred in Play It Again, Sammy, an unsold spin-off pilot that aired as an episode of Spenser for Hire. I suspect these are intentional ommissions, since Terrace lists some, but not all, of the unsold spin-off pilots from Diagnosis Murder and Spenser for Hire. It makes me wonder how many other pilots or credits he didn’t include for purely personal reasons…a dislike of a writer, actor or producer. If that is the case, it’s petty and undermines his work.

But I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about the book or raise the stench of sour grapes. This is a wonderful book. Vincent Terrace is the undisputed Godfather of TV reference books, breaking ground with his landmark, multi-volume set The Complete Encyclopedia of Television Programs 1947-1979 and he hasn’t stopped since. If anything, he’s repeatedly topped himself.Today, his four mammoth (and outrageously expensive) reference books — The Encyclopedia of Television Pilots Second Edition 1937-2019, the Encyclopedia of Unaired Television Pilots 1945-2018, The Encyclopedia of Television Shows 1925-2010, and The Encyclopedia of Television Shows 2011-2016 — represent the crown jewels of any television reference library.

A Ton of TV Reference Books Reviewed

I couldn’t help myself and bought Vincent Terrace’s outrageously over-priced ENCYCLOPEDIA OF UNAIRED PILOTS, 1945-2018 by Vincent Terrace…supposedly a complete list of unsold pilots that were shot and never broadcast. The book also includes appendices of series that sold, but were substantially recast after their pilots. How could I resist this?? I’m wowed. It’s a very impressive book, filled with useful information. I doubt anybody but me, who is steeped in this stuff, would notice the shows that he missed. For example, he missed the 1993 Fox pilot DR. DOOLITTLE aka WILDE LIFE (Brian Wimmer played the role), the 1986 CBS pilot FLAG (starring Darren McGavin) and the 2018 CBS reboot of CAGNEY & LACEY (starring Sarah Drew & Michelle Hurd), to name a few. In his section on series that were recast after the pilots, he doesn’t include ABC’s 2008 version of LIFE ON MARS (Jason O’Mara was the only cast member retained…Colm Meaney was among the actors booted), the 1987 CBS series SPIES (George Hamilton replaced Tony Curtis as the lead), the CBS series MARTIAL LAW (Dale Midkiff was Sammo Hung’s original partner), the 1987 Fox series 21 JUMP STREET (Jeff Yagher was the original star, replaced by Johnny Depp), THE BOB NEWHART SHOW (Bill Daily wasn’t in it and Peter Bonerz’s Jerry wasn’t a dentist, he was Bob’s partner, another shrink!), PERFECT STRANGERS (Louie Anderson was replaced by Mark Linn Baker), THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (Darren McGavin was Oscar Goldman in the pilot), etc. I’m sure there are many more omissions I could mention if I put my mind to it… or compared his book to my own (UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS 1955-1989). To be fair to Terrace, it’s very, very hard to find information on unaired pilots and only a handful of people like me, longtime TV writer/producers, and seasoned studio and network development executives, would notice what he missed (I only know about SPIES, for example, because I was up to be on staff and a screener video cassette was given to me). I also wish there was more context to some of the listings…details on the development history, what the projected series would have been and why it wasn’t picked up. But again that’s just me…and I can’t blame him for not having the details, it requires a lot of interviews, and a real passion for the subject. Let me stress, that these are nit-picks. This is a fantastic book, an incredible work of TV research…and I’m saying that after only sitting with it for a couple of hours. If this book wasn’t so ridiculously and unjustifiably expensive, I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in TV history snap it up. It’s an essential reference work for *any* TV reference book library, personal or institutional.

Ed Robertson just released 45 YEARS OF THE ROCKFORD FILES, an updated edition of his previous books on the series. It’s terrific! I’ve loved every edition of this book (and have them all). It just keeps getting better and better. I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable reviewing this edition because I keep coming across quotes from me in the book. So let me reshare what I said about the previous, 2006 edition, because the praise still applies:

If you’re as into TV… and TV Private Eyes… as I am, you’ve got to buy yourself Ed Robertson’s “Thirty Years of THE ROCKFORD FILES.” The book covers every aspect of the classic series, from the making of the pilot through the production of the eight reunion movies (as well as unproduced scripts and the tie-in books by Stuart Kaminsky among other things). Robertson interviews all the key players in front of, and behind, the camera, including James Garner, Steve Cannell, Roy Huggins, and Charles Floyd Johnson, and provides detailed episode synopses. Like improved software, it’s well-worth “upgrading” to this new edition.

Sometimes it seems like there’s an entire segment of the publishing industry devoted only to producing books that examine every aspect of Star Trek, and it’s many sequels and spin-offs, to an almost molecular level. Some of those books are quite good (like Marc Cushman’s massive reference works). Some are just coffee-table books full of pretty pictures targeted like a tractor beam to lift every last cent from a Trekker’s wallet. STAR TREK: THE OFFICIAL GUIDE TO THE ANIMATED SERIES by Aaron Harvey & Rich Schepis, falls somewhere in-between. It is a pretty book, basically a slick, hardcover episode guide with nice artwork and production sketches.  There some interesting information here, but there’s also a lot of repetition, many of the same facts are repeated over and over and over… either out of laziness, or for padding, or an assumption that nobody will read the book cover-to-cover, so some information needed to be repeated.  Take out the artwork and the repetition and it would be a thin book. As a TV reference work, it can’t compare to Marc Cushman’s THESE ARE THE VOYAGES: GENE RODDENBERRY & STAR TREK IN THE 1970s (1970-75), a 750 page behemoth that goes into extensive detail (perhaps too much) on the production of the animated series as well as Roddenberry’s unsold pilots (Genesis II, Planet Earth, Spectre, etc) and other projects produced during that period.

Cannon Fodder

I only meant to skim Austin Trunick’s THE CANNON FILM GUIDE VOL 1 1980-1984 to the chapters on the films I’ve seen or am curious about. But the book is so much fun, so compulsively readable, so full of great anecdotes and insider-details, that I ended up reading the entire 530 page book… and I don’t even like 99% of the crap the studio released. But it was impossible for me to put it down.

The book, the first of three volumes, devotes a chapter to each Cannon title released during the first four years of the schlock-studio’s short life, though Trunick will leap forward in time to include all of a movie’s sequels in the chapter that discuses the first film (for example, all the Missing in Action and Death Wish movies are covered in this volume, even though they spanned the studio’s run). Movies covered in this volume include The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood, Bolero!, Hercules, Enter the Ninja, The Last American Virgin, Breakin’, Sahara, and Exterminator 2 among many others. In addition to the author’s extensive reporting and lively commentary, most chapters also include a Q&A interview or two with key cast members or production personnel. Trunick has done an enormous amount of research which, combined with his easy-going narrative style, boyish enthusiasm, and sense of humor, make the book a pleasure to read… though it gets frustrating watching studio heads Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, men with terrible instincts and even worse taste, keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

On the movie The Secret of Yolanda Trunick says:

A nomad cowboy wanders onto a ranch, bangs every breathing woman within a 40-mile radius, and then is run out of town for taking advantage of a handicapped stable girl. That’s “The Secret of Yolanda” in a nutshell. And that guy is supposed to be the hero of the movie!

On Seed of Innocence aka Teen Mothers, Trunick has this observation:

The script was co-written by Stu Krieger, who’d become better known for writing the screenplay for the classic Don Bluth animated filmed “The Land Before Time,” a movie with significantly fewer prostitutes and unplanned pregnancies.

Trunick discusses the ending of Nana: The True Key to Pleasure, which inexplicably concludes with the heroine flying away in a hot air balloon.

“As the balloon floats away, a man is revealed to be hiding in the bottom of the basket. He ducks under her dress and a sly smile forms on Nana’s lips as we have to assume the stowaway gentleman performs cunnilingus on her. Meanwhile, Emile Zola’s original novel ended with [Nana] dying horribly of smallpox, describing her as, I quote, ‘a heap of pus and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh.’ Talk about a softening ending for movie audiences…

It’s a terrific book, but not without some flaws. There are numerous proofreading mistakes (mostly missing words) and some formatting errors, and a few factual errors (for example, he refers to Chuck Norris’ Walker Texas Ranger as a “long-running syndicated series,” apparently unaware that the show ran for eight straight seasons & 200 episodes on CBS before going into reruns), but those are very minor quibbles. I can’t wait for the next two volumes!

The Forgotten Desi & Lucy TV Projects

 The Forgotten Desi & Lucy TV Projects by Richard Irvin. This is yet another terrific television reference book by undoubtedly one of the best authors/researchers/historians working in the field today.
 
This book is typical of Irvin’s work—find an overlooked corner of television history, exhaustively research the topic, and write an entertaining, fascinating, and revealing book that will help countless other researchers. So much has been written about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and even about Desilu Productions, but until now nobody thought the examine their failed television projects, the unsold pilots (produced & unproduced) that never made it to series and rejected concepts for specials that never got made. He not only examines the failed projects by the two different iterations of Desilu—the one run by Desi and the one run by Lucy—but also those developed by each of their independent entities after the company was sold to Gulf & Western (aka Paramount).
 
I’m a sucker for unsold television pilots—having written a book or two on the topic myself—so there was much to enjoy here and also much to learn, even about projects I thought I knew everything about. I thought it was interesting how often Desi used THE UNTOUCHABLES as a platform for shooting pilots…even ones that , had they sold, would have been set in present day rather than the 1930s. What’s the point of shooting a period pilot for a contemporary show? It’s no surprise to me the strategy didn’t work.
 
Irvin also looks at the half-dozen unsold pilots and series projects Gene Roddenberry developed for Desilu before and during STAR TREK. One of the fascinating revelations is that Lucille Ball almost starred in a movie about Fanny Brice before FUNNY GIRL was made.
 
All-in-all, this is a fantastic book that belongs in every television reference library…along with every other book Richard Irvin has written.
 
 

Four Stars for Four Star

 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.

TV Book Reviews: SINGLE SEASON SITCOMS and TELEVISION FINALES

Two recent TV references books are worth your consideration this holiday season.
 
SINGLE SEASON SITCOMS OF THE 1990s: A Complete Guide by Bob Leszczak   This is a great book — and more than another “just the facts ma’am” reference book — — but the title isn’t entirely accurate. The author takes an extremely broad view of what consitutes a sitcom. He includes some single-season, hour long shows like AGAINST THE LAW, ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, CUPID, FREAKS AND GEEKS, GOING TO EXTREMES, HARTS OF THE WEST, SPY GAME and TEQUILA AND BONETTI that most people would never consider situation comedies. And, in a book on Single Season sitcoms, he has a large section on shows that came back for an abbreviated, and/or very different second season like ALMOST PERFECT, BOB, and THE JEFF FOXWORTHY SHOW (this section is fascinating, because he explores the reasoning behind the often radical format changes that granted some of these doomed shows a second year of life). 
 
But do I care about those strange anomalies in a book about Single Season Sitcoms? No, I don’t, because this book is pure gold for a guy like me. He could have included a section on two season shows with female leads, a section on American shows featuring British actors, or a section just on TV private eyes, and I would have simply said — MORE! MORE! 
 
The book is jam-packed with tons of useful information. Each listing not only describes the premise of each show in detail, but often includes interviews with key production staff, like the producers, directors, writers and cast members (though sometimes the quotes from them are formatted with special indentation, and other times not, which doesn’t make a lot of sense). The majority of listiings mention the names of the showrunners or creators, but I wish every single listing did.
 
One of my favorite listings tells the story behind the trainwreck IT HAD TO BE YOU, the ill-fated 1993 sitcom starring Faye Dunaway and Robert Urich…that initially starred Twiggy and another actor…and by the time it was over, four weeks later, only starred Urich.  Another memorable listing tells the complicated history of 1995 sitcom MINOR ADJUSTMENTS, which went through many major adjustments over its short life, which spanned 20 episodes and two networks. 
 
I loved this book. No TV reference library is complete without it and the previous two volumes, SINGLE SEASON SITCOMS OF THE 1980s and  SINGLE SEASON SITCOMS 1948-1979 (both of which I reviewed here). I can’t wait for the next edition!
 
TELEVISION FINALES:  From Howdy Doody to Girls, Edited by Douglas L. Howard and David Bianculli. A book about televsion finales is long-overdue and I was eager to read this one. This 500-page opus is more of a series of critical analyses than a reference work, with experts like TV critic David Bianculli, TV reference book author Douglas Snauffer, and TV historian Robert J. Thompson offering their insights in essays that cover 71 finales, including such classic and controversial endings as Newhart, Seinfeld, Lost, The Sopranos, St. Elsewhere, M*A*S*H and Nichols. They also cover obscure, short-lived shows like Jericho and British series like Life on Mars and Spaced. The reasoning behind which finales were chosen to include in the book isn’t clear, so we don’t know why the enders for shows like Magnum PI, Jag, Miami Vice, The Paper Chase, CSI, Who’s the Boss and The Odd Couple were overlooked, while space was given to lesser-known series like Rectify and Carnivale.
 
The essays are interesting and, in most cases, thoughtful and well-considered, with the finales put into both historical/cultural context as well as within the context of the narrative of the often long-running shows themselves. But basically most of the entries are scholarly opinion pieces, the authors explaining why they think a particular finale was memorable or forgettable, good or bad (for example, Martha P. Nochimson hated the finale of Battlestar Galactica, faulting series creator/writer Ronald Moore for driving “the show where it could not and should not go” and frakking-up the finale)  I didn’t always agree with the authors’ conclusions (personally, I thought the Galactica finale was great and emotionally satisfying), but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the book. I wish, though, that the book focused far less on the opinions and analyses of the authors and more on the actual development and production of the finales, with interviews with the writers, directors, and cast members.  

TV Book Reviews: Mr. Novak and Movies of the Week

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 by Chuck HarterMR. 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 coverARE 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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TV Books A-Go-Go

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.

 

Book Reviews: Thirtysomething and Petrocelli

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.

Book Review: 52 WEEKS & 52 WESTERN NOVELS

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.

52 Weeks & 52 Western NovelsIf 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.