Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mary Ellen

17 Mary Ellen
November 17, 1979
Music: Stu Phillips
Teleplay: Jimmy Sangster and Sidney Ellis and Michael Sloan
Story: Jimmy Sangster
Director: Frank P. Beascoechea

BJ AND THE BEAR's director of photography, Frank Beascoechea, picked a heck of an episode on which to make his debut as a director. They say you should avoid working with animals and children, so, of course, "Mary Ellen" has both. Not just Bear, the chimpanzee traveling companion of trucker BJ McKay (Greg Evigan), but also the title character herself, who just happens to be an elephant.

A veteran animal trainer (TV's Fish, Abe Vigoda) and his granddaughter (Marilyn Jones, who would join Linda Hamilton and Lorenzo Lamas on the primetime soap THE SECRETS OF MIDLAND HEIGHTS a year later) hire BJ to transport Mary Ellen and them to join a circus in Florida. Their journey, however, takes them through the county patrolled by BJ's archfoes, corrupt Sgt. Wiley (Slim Pickens) and the Fox (Conchata Ferrell), who are trying to keep their illegal moonshine cache a secret from their boss, the clueless Sheriff Masters (Richard Deacon). Mary Ellen's memory of Wiley feeding her popcorn laced with hot pepper years before sends her into a rampage that lands BJ behind bars and the elephant the target of every redneck with a rifle in the county.

Ah, the days when smalltown America could be captivated by an elephant. No show would put a performing elephant on the air these days, but again, there's a lot about BJ AND THE BEAR that doesn't appeal to today's network executives. Whether the series would appeal to a mainstream audience today is a debate for a different post.

Director Beascoechea delivers a solid episode with an eye-catching opening stunt and warm acting by Vigoda. Beascoechea continued to be a regular cinematographer on Glen A. Larson programs, such as SWORD OF JUSTICE, THE FALL GUY and BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, though he only occasionally directed again. "Mary Ellen" was also the first BJ script by Jimmy Sangster, a British screenwriter who made his bones penning classic Hammer horror and adventure movies, such as THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. After he moved to Hollywood in the early 1970s to write for American television, Sangster worked consistently in the crime and fantasy genres, crafting imaginative episodes for series as diverse as WONDER WOMAN and CANNON, as well as made-for-TV movies.

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