I have to admit some biases from the get-go — I’ve known the author for years and we had the same mentor in TV business, Remington Steele showrunner Michael Gleason. So it’s probably no surprise that I loved this book..but I am sure I would have regardless of my biases. It’s a long overdue, nuts-and-bolts guide to TV showrunning that should be required reading before any writer-producer is put in charge of a TV series. I’ll go further than that. Every TV writer who joins the WGA should get a copy of this book with their membership card so they understand exactly what they are getting into. And the book should also be required reading for network and studio executives, many of whom, it would surprise you to learn, don’t actually realize what goes into producing a TV series (ignorance often reflected in their notes). Melvoin’s book reflects the wisdom he’s gained from his years of in-the-trenches experience running shows, but it also benefits from his active role as a teacher / mentor / advisor in the WGA’s showrunner training program, which helped many of today’s top TV showrunners hone skills they might not have picked up on the job (especially in this era of eight-episode limited series and tiny, pre-production writer’s rooms). Melvoin delves into just about every aspect of showrunning, from tiny details to big-picture concepts, and it’s great stuff. But even if you’re never going to run a show, if you’re just fascinated by TV, this is a remarkable inside look at how series are made. Speaking personally, seeing the photos of Jeff’s early scripts, with Michael Gleason’s handwritten notes on the side, brought tears to my eyes….and many good memories.
The prolific Irvin continues to mine the corners of TV ephemera for his exhaustively detailed, wonderful unique TV reference books which, as I’ve said again and again, seem to be written just for me. I love his books and wish they’d existed before I wrote my book Unsold Television Pilots back in the 80s. It would have made my research so much easier, and my listings much more informative… particularly in the case of this book. If you’ve always wanted to know more about pioneering TV producers Jack Chertok, Roland Reed, or Edward Lewis, the King of the Backdoor Pilot, this is the book for you. Speaking of back-door pilots, Irvin’s chapter on Movie Star TV Production Companies sounds like a pilot proposal for a series of books aimed, with laser-focus, on my wallet. This is a must-have for any TV reference collection….and for true historians of TV history.
This huge book is the definition of a niche title, covering every theatrical and TV movie made with a flake of snow and a set of skis in the story (It’s also the definition of the perfect bathroom-read…especially for AirBnB snow cabin vacation rentals). But it’s much more than a collection of detailed and snarky movie reviews — the listings often include interesting production information and interviews. Even if you aren’t interested in the genre (is it one?), movie-lovers and movie-historians will find the book a fascinating and engaging reference work. I sure did. (As an aside — I can’t believe the notoriously litigious Bond producers haven’t sued McFarland & Co. for using the full poster of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE as their cover!).
This wonderful book by IAMTW Grandmaster Alan Dean Foster is, IMHO, mistitled. It isn’t really about the film trade, it’s about the movie and TV tie-in business and the rocky, land-mine filled world of novelizations. And nobody knows more about
tie-ins and novelizations, perhaps, than Alan Dean Foster. His anecdotes about novelizing movies and TV shows can be enjoyed on so many levels –. as a primer on the business and creative life of a working writer, as a history of tie-in,as an inside look at movie marketing, as history of film-making over several turbulent decades, and as a collection of amusing anecdotes/vignettes about Hollywood and writing. And on every level, it’s a resounding success.
This is another one of Irvin’s niche TV reference books, this one focusing mostly on short-lived series that were abruptly cancelled, leaving a few unaired, and probably never-to-be-seen, episodes on the shelf. He could write fifty books like this, so his picks of which shows and pilots and never-aired-series to include seems very arbitrary. It’s not clear what made these particular bombs any more worthy of being remembered than the 100s of others out there. The detailed descriptions of unaired episodes of short-lived become tedious and irrelevant, unless you happen to be one of the very few fans of one of these forgotten shows. I wish, instead, that less information was given on the unaired episodes and more space given to interviews with the writers & producers to give us more details on the creation and failure of these shows…and why they deserve not to be forgotten. That said, I don’t really get the point of this book. While I loved it, because I eat this kind of stuff up, I’m an outlier. I have to admit, as Irvin’s biggest fan, that this is his first misfire, a book that doesn’t strike me as necessary, or particularly useful, TV reference or history book.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which charts the history of the movie from the writing of the initial novel and on through the sequel films that followed decades later. The movie is chock-full of great personal and production details about the writers, producer, studio executives, actors, and especially star Lee Marvin, who Epstein previously wrote about in biographical book Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Epstein builds his book on his own interviews, but also upon previously published material gleaned from newspapers, actor biographies, and the like. The only drawback to the book are the lengthy, overly-detailed synopses of the novel and each draft of the script, Frankly, I skimmed most of the synopses, though I might go back to re-read those portions of the book if I ever re-watch the movie. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in film-making, regardless of whether you’ve seen the movie or not.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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!
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.