Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Foundlings

For the simple reason that nobody else is doing it, I plan to begin compiling episode guides and reviews here for BJ AND THE BEAR and THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO. Both TV series were medium-sized hits on NBC during the late 1970s and early 1980s when Fred Silverman was at the network helm, programming some of the dumbest and most tasteless shows you can imagine and plunging NBC to the bottom of the Nielsen ratings. My roundups of these two shows will likely follow the same basic format as the pieces I've done on WALKING TALL, THE ROCKFORD FILES and KAREN SISCO. I don't expect to see those page counts rip through the roof, but since I feel that every television series deserves some amount of love—and I know that somebody, somewhere, wants to know more about these shows—I'll periodically visit both BJ and LOBO right here.

If you're unfamiliar with BJ AND THE BEAR, its concept was pretty simple, really. Billie Joe McKay (Greg Evigan) was a chopper pilot in Vietnam who spent four months in a POW camp. Upon returning to the United States, BJ (the on-screen title uses no periods) used his Army salary to plop down a down payment on a brightly colored red-and-white Kenworth cab-over semi truck. Pledging that no one would ever again keep him cooped or locked up, BJ and his sidekick Bear, a chimpanzee dressed in a vest, shorts and funny hat and named after Alabama football coach Bear Bryant (!), drive around the country, hauling freight for $1.50 per mile, "no questions asked." As usual for this type of show, BJ rarely got paid for his work, and spent more time solving mysteries, helping strangers in trouble, and digging his way out of one scrape after another than actually hauling. This used to be a very common show conceit that sadly no longer exists. The opening titles for the series should give you some idea of what BJ AND THE BEAR is all about:

Series creator and executive producer Glen A. Larson, whose credits include KNIGHT RIDER and THE FALL GUY, is credited with penning the theme, which was performed by star Evigan. BJ's pilot, which aired in a 2-hour time slot on October 8, 1978, is titled "The Foundlings," and was later split into two 1-hour episodes in syndication.

Written by Larson and producer Christopher Crowe, who went on to produce NBC's shortlived SWORD OF JUSTICE that season, and directed by veteran Bruce Bilson (grandfather of THE O.C. cutie Rachel Bilson), "The Foundlings" is BJ's first brush with Sheriff Elroy P. Lobo, played gruffly by Claude Akins, an extremely popular character actor coming off his own shortlived cop show, NASHVILLE 99, in which he and country singer Jerry Reed (SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT) played detectives in the Music City.

Lobo would become so popular with either audiences or Silverman (or both) that he received his own spinoff series a year after the BJ pilot. I'll discuss THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO when I begin reviewing those episodes. What I have done is stagger the episodes of both BJ and LOBO in original airing order, as a way of examining the shows as they were originally seen on NBC.

One note about Lobo is that, when he became the hero of his own show, Akins portrayed him as a rogue and something of a scoundrel, but basically a good guy. That is a long way from "The Foundlings," in which he, as the sheriff of Orly County, seemingly located somewhere in the Southern United States, is operating a white slavery ring. He and his assistant Perkins (Mills Watson, who would later become Lobo's buffoonish deputy) kidnap teenage girls, beat them, and sexually abuse them before selling them to the highest bidder. One of the girls, Florence ("special guest star" Penny Peyser, just coming off THE TONY RANDALL SHOW and looking scrumptious in Daisy Duke shorts), leads the rest in an escape, and tricks BJ into hauling them across the county line in the back of his semi. When BJ finally discovers Florence's ruse, he agrees to help the girls, leading Lobo and his deputies on a wild cross-country chase past obstacles such as roadblocks, muddy roads and pneumonia.

2nd unit director John Peyser, normally a television director who also served as a producer on the pilot, is kept busy staging crashes and car explosions (and also the uncle of actress Penny, whose father Peter was then a U.S. Representative from New York), while Bilson attempts to stretch the thin story to feature length. "The Foundlings" would have worked better as an hour, but you can sort of see why 1978 viewers might have been drawn to it. Evigan, who had very little on-camera experience before landing the BJ lead, evinces an relaxed charm that makes his implausible character, a 'Nam vet truck driver who sings, plays guitar, and travels around the country in a red semi while talking to his pet monkey, easy to take. He and Penny Peyser, who usually played nice girls, do a lot of bickering early on, but surprisingly don't take the typical path toward falling in love, perhaps because of her assumed status as "broken goods."

"The Foundlings" ends with Sheriff Lobo arrested on white slavery charges, but a good villain is hard to keep down, and Akins returned just a few months later when BJ AND THE BEAR began its regular 3-season run on NBC. Other guest stars in the pilot are Harry Townes as a friendly doctor, Woodrow Parfrey as a befuddled storekeeper, Dennis Fimple as a dumb deputy and Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE) as an Army colonel who comes to BJ's rescue. One of the escaped girls—really, the only one we get to know anything about, besides Peyser—is played by Kristine DeBell, who was trying to live down playing the title role in Bill Osco and Bud Townsend's X-rated musical comedy ALICE IN WONDERLAND a couple of years earlier.

1 comment:

Hal said...

Great idea, Marty. I'm still trying to find old LOBO episodes in my (900 strong) VHS collection, to no avail so far. It seems like I've found everything BUT Akins and Co. I'll help the page count along on these posts. :)

If I remember right, the great Larry Storch guest starred in the first LOBO episode, and Dean Martin guest starred in the second.