A Feast for TV History Buffs

Roy HugginsTwo new books from McFarland & Co. are a feast for TV history buffs.

Roy Huggins by 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 The book is based on dozens of personal interviews, Huggins’ own unpublished memoirs, newspaper & magazine articles, as well as my own, six-hour video interview with Huggins for The Archive of American Television.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.

George BurnsBurns 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.

The USA’s best thriller books from 2013 – 3 brand new crime classics

The USA’s best thriller books from 2013 - 3 brand new crime classics

The USA’s best thriller books from 2013 - 3 brand new crime classicsHere’s a guest post from my friend Kate Goldstone, a big fan in the UK of crime shows, crime novels and everything noir, talking about the amazing year 2013 was for mystery thriller books.  Do you agree with her? I’d be interested to know your recommendations, so leave a comment…

What a year 2013 was for US mystery thriller books. It was an epic twelve months in which some of the best and least well-known thriller authors scored massive commercial hits. Stephen King delivered a sequel to The Shining, to the delight of millions of fans who never quite forgot the skin-crawling terror of redrum and always wondered what happened to little Danny. Lee Child, Sue Grafton and Michael Connelly released the latest in their iconic series’ too, making 2013 a year to remember in the best thriller books stakes.

All of which made me a very happy bunny, as we say in Brit-land. Hand me a new crime mystery or thriller, switch the sunshine on, let me loose in the yard and I’m sorted.

Here are three of the best from last year. If you’re on a mission to identify the best of the genre in time for the Easter break, you could do a lot worse than grab these three and run with ’em.

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Silent Night

14736354_201309051155SILENT NIGHT was the Spenser novella that Robert B. Parker was working on when he died at his desk. His literary agent, Helen Brann, has finished it. Spenser fans would have been better off if she hadn’t. This is a terrible novella and hands-down the worst tale in the Spenser series, which was already taking a nose-dive in quality in the last few years before Parker’s death. What SILENT NIGHT does do effectively is really make you appreciate the remarkable job Ace Atkins has done with his two Spenser books.

The plotting, if you can call it that, of SILENT NIGHT is limp and feels improvised. Spenser is an utterly passive, listless character in this tale who does nothing but sit in his office and wait for people to come by and tell him what he needs to know. He does no detecting. And what little action he does take makes no investigative or rational sense. Come to think of it, nobody in this book….particularly the state and local police…behave in anything remotely resembling a realistic or rational manner. Usually, when Parker’s plotting was weak, he’d distract you from it with punchy dialogue and sharply drawn characters. Not this time. The dialogue is expositional and leaden and the characters, especially Spenser, Hawk, and Susan, are reduced to one-dimensional caricatures. SILENT NIGHT is a disappointment on every level. Save yourself the disappointment and skip this book.

These are the Voyages

51ujI2AttuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After nearly fifty years, I thought there wasn’t anything more to be said, or any more books that could possibly be mined, from the original Star Trek. Hasn’t that show been talked about, and examined to death, down to every last detail?

You’d think so. But then along came These Are The Voyages: Season One by Marc Cushman and it may be the best book yet about the production of the series and one of the best books ever written about any TV show. It’s a shame the book is presented as yet another fan-written curio for the diehard trekker…because it’s a must-read for students of television, and aspiring TV writers, regardless of whether they watched, or liked, Star Trek.

These Are The Voyages is an exhaustively detailed look at the writing and nuts-and-bolts production of every single episode, from the first, failed pilot onward. Everything in the book, like a TV series, starts with the scripts…and Cushman walks us through every draft and every change, whether they were prompted by creative issues, budgetary concerns, production issues, or network notes.

The author relies on extensive interviews with the show’s surviving writers, producers, directors, and actors (and archival interviews with those who have passed away) and never-before-released memos, budgets, shooting schedules, and other internal documents. Best of all, Cushman manages to remain, with only a few slips, remarkably objective and scholarly about his subject, leaving the book refreshingly free of the kind of cringe-inducing, fannish drool that usually typifies books about “cult” shows and Star Trek in particular.

These Are the Voyages is a treasure trove of information and a fascinating look at how a TV show is written and produced…and all of the forces that shape it. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next two volumes.

My 10 Favorite Western Authors

71UgoZxb2ML._SL1500_I love a good western novel…but there are so few writers who can do them well, avoiding the dusty cliches and tropes of the genre to deliver a powerful, memorable, original story with flesh-and-blood characters. So here are my 10 favorite western authors, in no particular order:

Larry McMurtryLonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo are two of the best westerns ever. Some of his follow-ups were entertaining, but never matched these two.

Frederick Manfred (aka Feike Feikema) – His Lord Grizzly is a classic, but I’d also strongly recommend Scarlet Plume, Riders of Judgment (made into a miniseries entitled The Johnson County Wars scripted by McMurtry) and Conquering Horse.

Bill Crider – I loved his books Outrage at Blanco and Texas Vigilante, which should be read back-to-back as one, wonderfully-told tale. I’ve been trying for years to get a movie version of those books off the ground and have come tantalizingly close several times. But I haven’t given up hope! He’s also written several other great westerns, too.

A.B. Guthrie – His novels The Big Sky and The Way West are not only classic novels… but classic movies, too. His wonderful westerns should be read in order (Big Sky, Way West, These Thousand Hills, Arfive, The Last Valley and Fair Land, Fair Land) since they are essentially a series.

Ed Gorman – I’ve raved about his books Trouble Man and Wolf Moon on this blog many times. But you’ll also enjoy Death Ground,Guild, hell, anything with his name on it.

H.A. DeRosso – One of the darkest western writers out there…and one of the least well known. His books include .44 , The Gun Trail, and Under the Burning Sun.

Glendon Swarthout – His terrific novel The Shootist is a classic and, fittingly, was the basis for John Wayne’s final western.

Harry Whittington – His westerns (Trouble Rides Tall, Vengeance is the Spur, etc.) are every bit as tightly-plotted and leanly-written as his fine crime novels…and were his only books to be adapted for films and movies.9780618154623_p0_v1_s260x420

Elmore Leonard – Before he was the king of crime, he was the king of westerns…many of his books and stories became beloved western movies, too… like 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre and Valdez is Coming.

Thomas Eidson – His book The Last Ride became the vastly under-rated film Missing directed by Ron Howard. His western St. Agne’s Stand is also terrific.

Other western writers I love include James Reasoner, Richard Wheeler, Bud Shrake (The Borderland), Marvin Albert, Lauran Paine, Frank Bonham, Thomas Berger (Little Big Man), Robert B. Parker (Gunman’s Rhapsody and Appaloosa), Tom Franklin (Hell at the Breech)Scott Phillips (Cottonwood), Jonathan Evison (West of Here), Patrick DeWitt (The Sisters Brothers) and Philipp Meyer (The Son). There are many more. In fact, I’m sure other authors and their great books will occur to me the instant I’ve posted this list…but that’s the risk you take when you do one of these.

(Hat tip to James Reasoner…whose list of his favorite western authors inspired me to share mine).

The Forgotten

forgotten laughs-500x500There are two great new books out that deal with forgotten entertainment: Richard Irvin’s Forgotten Laughs: An Episode Guide to 150 TV Sitcoms You Probably Never Saw and Brian Ritt’s Paperback Confidential: Crimes Writers of the Paperback Era.

Forgotten Laughs is a fantastic book from Bear Manor Publishing that focuses on comedies that lasted six episodes…or less. Many of the sitcoms were initially picked up for thirteen episodes but didn’t survive past their first or second week on the air. Some of the shows were cancelled before even one episode got on the air.  The book includes detailed episode guides for the aired, unaired or, in some cases, unproduced episodes of each series and gives the backstories on their development and cancellation. It’s a treasure trove of information and a fascinating glimpse into the world of network television scheduling and development. It’s an exhaustively-researched, smoothly written, must-have reference book for TV industry followers. I absolutely loved it. I hope Irvin will follow up with a sequel covering forgotten one-hour dramas.

images-3Paperback Confidential is an essential reference book for lovers of hard-boiled/noir paperbacks of the 1930s through the mid-1960s, most of them forgotten by most readers today. Ritt profiles 132 of the best loved, and also some of the most obscure, authors of the era. Authors include David Goodis, Norbert Davis, Marvin Albert, Dolores Hitchens, Fletcher Flora, Cornell Woolrich, Ann Bannon, Harry Whittington, and so many others. Ritt not only tells you all about them and their books, he also provides their pseudonyms and a selected bibliography of their work (some of these authors wrote dozens, if not hundreds, of books). Now whenever I pick up a vintage paperback from some author I’ve never heard of, this book will save me the hours I would have spent on the Internet searching for more information. It’s no surprise that this terrific book comes from Stark House Press, the people who’ve so lovingly republished “lost” and/or long out-of-print books by Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, Dan J. Marlowe, and James Hadley Chase among others. The people at Stark House are doing God’s work, as far as I’m concerned.

(For the record, I independently bought both of these books…there were not provided to me for review)

 

A Book Made For Me

51lYvEwlv-L._SS500_ I'm a sucker for unusual reference works about the media, whether its books, movies or TV shows (and you gotta love McFarland for publishing so many of them). Bradley Mengel's "Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction" was a must-have for me, even before I read the rave reviews on Bookgasm and Bill Crider's blog.

I've always loved pulp novels like "The Executioner," "The Penetrator," "The Death Merchant," and "The Destroyer." In fact, I did a scholarly, unpublished examination of the vigilante genre myself many years ago for a UCLA class…and as research for writing my first novel, .357 Vigilante, under the pseudonym "Ian Ludlow" (yes, it's covered in this book, and accurately, too. And notice how similar the cover of his book is to mine).

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For me, the best part of Mengel's book is discovering who actually wrote the novels written under "house" names…and learning the inside story on the development of so many obscure pulp series. This book is clearly a labor of love, but it leans more towards scholarly analysis than fannish drool. It's a great book for fans of pulps, rich with details and background information, and offers a historical overview of a genre, and a class of mass market paperbacks, that are all but dead today (except for Gold Eagle's "Executioner" books). Many of these books, and their authors, would have been forgotten if not for this one-of-a-kind reference work, which also offers a glimpse at the influence and workings of book packagers/"creators" in the 60s,70s & 80s.

The only drawback of this book is the steep $45 cover price. To save a few bucks, I bought the Kindle edition, which was also inexcusably pricey at $16, especially since the book doesn't really lend itself to easy reading on an e-reader. Even so, I'm glad I bought it.

Pondering the Ponderosa and Steve Cannell

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I've been reading a bunch of TV and movie reference books lately, most of which have been a disappointment. 

There's a great book to be written about the writing and production of BONANZA, something akin to the brilliant and comprehensive GUNSMOKE: A COMPLETE HISTORY. Sadly, A REFERENCE GUIDE TO BONANZA by Bruce Leiby and Linda F. Lieby, now out in paperback, isn't it. A scant eight pages — eight pages!– are given to the creation, writing and production of the show. The bulk of the book is a workman-like episode guide to the 14 seasons and brief synopses of the TV movies, hardly worth the price of purchase. The only thing interesting and worthwhile about the book are the appendices listing various BONANZA merchandise, books, comics, and records. However, I wish the effort the authors put into gathering so much pointless information — like listing all the shows available on video featuring Tim Matheson — had been focused instead on giving us the definitive history of the show. Consider this a lost opportunity.

The same can be said of STEPHEN J. CANNELL TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS: A HISTORY OF ALL SERIES & PILOTS by Jon Abbott. While the book is far more substantive and detailed than the BONANZA book, it draws entirely on previously published articles and books. The author, based in the UK, doesn't appear to have actually interviewed anyone himself, either at Cannell or at studios or the networks that Cannell worked for. The one person he should have talked to, and didn't, was Steve Cannell, the subject of his book. That is a glaring and crippling fault, obvious in every chapter. The author tries to make-up for that major weakness by relying heavily on his own ponderous and uinformed commentary (often repetitive, obvious and pointless), his critical overview (often meaningless and ridiculously fannish) and his interpretation of events (often dead wrong). That was a big mistake. What is especially irritating is the author's tendancy to make an assumption, and then afterwards treat it as fact. For example, in the RICHIE BROCKLEMAN chapter, he writes:

"The intention may have originally been to introduce the aggravating Brockleman into THE ROCKFORD FILES as a semi-regular partner for Rockford (to take some of the pressure off Garner's aching back). Fortunately, reason prevailed, and the character was instead written into the 1976 pilot film before surfacing in a double-length 1978 episode of ROCKFORD."

Most of the Cannell series, even from his days at Universal, are given full chapters and sketchy (to the point of almost being useless) episode guides…but after UNSUB, for reasons not explained, only passing reference is given to TOP OF THE HILL, BOOKER, BROKEN BADGES, 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE, PALACE GUARD, MISSING PERSONS, THE LAST PRECINCT, COBRA, STREET JUSTICE, HAWKEYE, MARKER and three of his all-time biggest hits, RENEGADE, THE COMMISH and SILK STALKINGS. Perhaps the author just wasn't able to get video tapes of those shows from his circle of collectors, who he thanks in his acknowledgments, which noticeably doesn't include the names of any people associated with Stephen J. Cannell Productions or his shows. It begs the question — why didn't he actually talk to anybody? I know many of these writers, producers and directors, and I can tell you, they aren't hard to find or unwilling to share their experiences. Maybe he couldn't afford the long-distance phone calls. 

All that said, there is a lot of useful information in the book and, since the definitive book on Cannell has yet to be written, this is not a bad place-holder until somebody writes it (hopefully, Cannell himself will do it some day!). 

Pondering the Ponderosa

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I’ve been reading a bunch of TV and movie reference books lately, most of which have been a disappointment.

There’s a great book to be written about the writing and production of BONANZA, something akin to the brilliant and comprehensive GUNSMOKE: A COMPLETE HISTORY. Sadly, A REFERENCE GUIDE TO BONANZA by Bruce Leiby and Linda F. Lieby, now out in paperback, isn’t it. A scant eight pages — eight pages!– are given to the creation, writing and production of the show. The bulk of the book is a workman-like episode guide to the 14 seasons and brief synopses of the TV movies, hardly worth the price of purchase. The only thing interesting and worthwhile about the book are the appendices listing various BONANZA merchandise, books, comics, and records. However, I wish the effort the authors put into gathering so much pointless information — like listing all the shows available on video featuring Tim Matheson — had been focused instead on giving us the definitive history of the show. Consider this a lost opportunity.

The same can be said of STEPHEN J. CANNELL PRODUCTIONS.

The Show Must Go On

51tnYP0UMrL._SS500_Don’t be fooled by the title of Douglas Snauffer’s new book, The Show Must Go On: How The Deaths of Lead Actors Have Affected Television Series…this is not a lurid or gossipy book but rather a serious, well-researched, detailed reference work about the business of television.

On the surface, the book is about what happens to a TV show when one of its stars dies, covering the impact of the calamity from every angle. But that death is just one part of the story. Douglas Snauffer, author of the exceptional Crime Television, gives us the full picture of the show, before and after the tragedy that may (or may not) have ultimately defined that series in TV history. Each chapter offers an in-depth look at the creation, development, production, and history of an individual series. It’s that detailed examination of each series — backed by interviews with all the key players in front of, and behind — the camera that gives this book it’s real value.

This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to know how TV series are created, written and produced…and why some succeed while others fail.