The Mail I Get

I got an email today asking me about the 1988 ABC TV series MURPHY’S LAW, which starred George Segal as an insurance investigator and Maggie Han as his much-younger girlfriend. The email said, in part:

“I am a big fan of Murphy’s Law, and I am not sure anyone else can answer my question! What happened in the unaired episode? (I believe it was called “All’s Wrong That Ends Wrong”.) And while I have you, were there plans for where the series would
go, had it continued? […] Did you enjoy the series? What was it like working for Michael Gleason and Leonard Stern? There is so little written about the show, I would love to know any of your recollections.”

The series was based on the TRACE and DIGGER novels by Warren Murphy. Michael Gleason, the creator and showrunner of REMINGTON STEELE, was the executive producer and Ernie Wallengren was the supervising producer. Each episode was titled after one of the Murphy’s Laws from the books published by Price Stern & Sloan (a company co-founded by Leonard Stern, one of our producers).

Gleason protege Lee David Zlotoff (who created MacGYVER) wrote and produced the 90-minute pilot which, as I recall, neither ABC nor New World Pictures Television was too happy with. So they brought in Michael, who re-cut it, shot some new scenes, and dropped the melancholy Mike Post theme in favor of a song by Al Jarreau. The idea was to make the show more light-hearted, though there definitely were some on-going dramatic elements regarding Murphy’s battle with alcoholism and his efforts to win visitation rights with his young daughter from his estranged wife, played by Kim Lankford.

I have enormous affection for MURPHY’S LAW because working on it had a lasting impact on me personally and professionally. It was the first staff job that Bill Rabkin and I had ever had…and it came right after the longest writers strike in the history of the TV industry. We wanted the job so bad and it was astonishing to us that we actually got it.We were working on the CBS/Radford lot and sharing a floor with the staff of THIRTYSOMETHING, which was pretty cool, too.

I was a huge admirer of Michael Gleason’s and, frankly, couldn’t believe we were actually working for him. He was so charming, creative, funny and friendly…he couldn’t have made it easier or more exciting for us… but even so, I was intimidated to actually have achieved my dream, and so afraid of failing, that for the first day or two after we got the green-light to write our script I suffered complete writer’s block, which broke only because Bill was there to walk me through it. We wrote two scenes together, line by line, and it was so much fun that I got so caught up in the writing that I forgot to be afraid.

I could go on and on about the show but the best thing about it was that Michael Gleason and Ernie Wallengren were wonderful writers and producers and very nice people. They taught us everything they knew, let us into casting, editing, music spotting and every other aspect of production…and gave us far more responsibility than we had any right to have. They also became more than our bosses…they became very close friends who we would work with again and again over the years. Series regular Kim Lankford introduced her cousin Carrie (or was it her niece?) to Bill, who promptly fell in love and married her…and they are still together today.

To answer your specific questions…we worked closely with Michael Gleason and consider him our mentor. We owe our careers to him and Ernie. We met Leonard Stern many times, but he wasn’t actively involved in the writing or producing of the series.

By the time we shot the 13th episode, we knew we’d been canceled and were going through the motions. The final episode, at New World’s insistence, was designed as a spin-off starring Joan Severance as a thief-turned-insurance investigator. Two versions were cut — one as a MURPHY’S LAW episode, the other as a pilot that largely cut our cast out of the action. I don’t know who had the brilliant idea of trying to sell a spin-off from a canceled show but, needless to say, it went nowhere. At the end of the episode, Murphy wins his long battle for unsupervised visitation rights with his daughter and the final shot is the two of them embracing on an airport runway.  The episode never aired…but I have a copy.

As far as I know, the show has never been in syndication and the only episode ever released to home video was the pilot…

Here’s the main title sequence…

14 thoughts on “The Mail I Get”

  1. I liked this show a lot. I remember watching the premiere and thinking it was going to be a big hit.
    All the episodes I saw were very entertaining. It was a damned good show and it should have been on for a long time.
    Thinking of the show now makes me think of Charles Rocket on it. Poor Charles…what a shame how things turned out for him.

  2. Yes, Maggie Han was… awesome. I do believe that’s the word that was used. She inspired… a lot of awe. Take that as you will.
    And the lovely Kim Lankford was and is Carrie’s cousin. I won’t let her know some people thought she might be her aunt…

  3. Charlie Rocket was great. He played Victor Beaudine, a sleazy character that Bill and I introduced in our first episode as a one-shot guest star…and he was so good, that he was written into just every episode that followed. He became a “recurring” character and would have been brought on as a regular if we’d been given a “back nine.” It was very odd for us at first to have a character we “created” being written by others…but it also gave us a sense of “pride of ownership” and an emotional investment in the show. It wasn’t just a job anymore…not that it ever was. We also discovered the financial joys of character payments — a fee you get every time a character you created reappears in an episode.
    Maggie Han was a very strange woman and had zero chemistry with George Segal, on-screen and off. She was professional and personable…just weird. She did one other series after ML…co-starring in a sitcom called TEECH, which was abruptly canceled after two or three episodes after the star was jailed for killing someone in a drunk driving accident.
    The other regular on the show was Josh Mostel, who was a very funny guy and had lots of great stories to tell about his father, the legendary Zero Mostel.
    One of our guest-stars was Patrick MacNee and it was a huge thrill to meet him. And Groundlings performer Julia Sweeney got her first TV acting job in an episode that Bill & I wrote…as a court-appointed counselor checking out Murphy’s parenting skills. I think she ultimately did two episodes for us.
    Bill Bixby directed two or three episodes of the show, and being a die-hard TV geek, I loved meeting him.
    It was really the dream staff job for us.

  4. As the guy who wrote the initial e-mail, thank you for the posting. I never had any idea that the titles came from the P/S/S books. I know Michael Gleason took pride in personally titling every single Remington Steele episode, so I always just assumed he did the same thing there.
    Before the trend of “final” episodes began in the mid ’70s (yes, yes, I know The Fugitive was first), where the storyline is somehow resolved, I have noticed a lot of shows ended with backdoor pilots. I agree that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I suppose the producers were looking ahead. After The Odd Couple and Mary Tyler Moore started the Special Final Episode thing, I think it happened a lot less. (Although Quincy, M.E. ends with one.)
    Were there any strained feelings after Michael Gleason was chosen to retool Zlotoff’s pilot, in view of their relationship? Not looking for gossip…just seems like an awkward situation.
    And thank you for posting the end of that 13th show. It was nice to see the resolution.

  5. Great story! It would be great to have you put these stories into context with the development of TV since you first started, another take on the business a la “Billion Dollar Kiss.” These stories have lasting value for those coming into the business.

  6. I remember catching a few episodes of the show while I was in high school. I was reading a lot of Murphy at that point (I’d burned through most of the “Remo Williams” novels by this point) and read either a “Digger” or a “Trace” novel (I can’t remember which, since they’re basically interchangeable), and then watched “Murphy’s Law” and noticed that it was based off the books. I really remember enjoying the show, though the only episode I remember had something to do with a motorcycle club and a motorcycle being stolen, and Murphy didn’t seem to do much detection; he ended up writing down on a piece of paper who had stolen the motorcycle. Instead, most of the episode seemed to deal with Murphy’s personal life, and even as a 14 or 15 year old, I liked this. I liked that Murphy had a life (far more so than either Digger or Trace did) and that he was far smarter than anyone else gave him credit for. It felt very much in the “Rockford” vein. A shame it didn’t last longer.
    BTW, come on, Lee: Can ANYONE have chemistry with Segal?

  7. Lee, one of the many pleasures of reading your blog is getting these wonderful bits about writing for television and the “back story” that just gives us lucky readers such rich details… thanks for running one of my favorite blogs…

  8. Lee,
    I don’t recall any battles between Zlotoff and Gleason…if memory serves, Zlotoff was off the project and developing something else before Gleason was brought in. Zlotoff may not have liked what was done to his pilot, but if he was upset, I don’t remember hearing about it.
    It was Michael Gleason who brought us into DIAGNOSIS MURDER as freelancers …a show we ended up running ourselves a few years later…and that I continued writing in a series of books years after that…which led to me doing the MONK books now…so the MURPHY’S LAW influence continues.
    Not only that, but I forgot to mention in my post that, to this day, Bill and I still are in business with Zev Braun Productions, the company behind MURPHY’S LAW. In fact, we just pitched a project with them to ABC…
    So the show is still, in many ways, a part of our lives.

  9. I still remember being about 15 years old, living in Chile and watching two dubbed episodes of the series on late TV. I thoroughly enjoyed them and still remember the storyline. It dealt with a woman by the name De Sade who becomes the office boss and makes everyone’s life hell. It’s too bad that this series is not available on DVD (or anywhere else for that matter).


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