Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Episode Guide: The Protectors

THE BOLD ONES was an interesting experiment on the part of NBC and Universal to do something different in episodic drama. The idea was to produce three different television series and rotate them in the same Sunday night timeslot. Premiering in the fall of 1969, THE BOLD ONES was successful enough for the network and studio to continue the strategy for most of the 1970s in FOUR-IN-ONE, THE NBC WEDNESDAY MYSTERY MOVIE, and—most famously—THE NBC SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE, which gave us COLUMBO, MCMILLAN AND WIFE, and MCCLOUD, among other shows.

THE BOLD ONES began with three rotating series: THE NEW DOCTORS starring E.G. Marshall (THE DEFENDERS), John Saxon (ENTER THE DRAGON), and David Hartman (LUCAS TANNER); THE LAWYERS with Burl Ives, James Farentino (COOL MILLION), and Joseph Campanella (MANNIX); and the series written about here, THE PROTECTORS.

THE PROTECTORS was the least successful of the BOLD ONES ventures, lasting only six one-hour episodes following the pilot movie, DEADLOCK, which NBC aired in March 1969. Leslie Nielsen, who died November 28 at age 84, starred as Sam Danforth, the deputy police chief of San Sebastian, located in southern California. A politically conservative man who ran his force by the book, Danforth was brought in from Cleveland to clean up the city using modern police methods.

Danforth frequently clashed with Hari Rhodes (DAKTARI) as liberal district attorney William Washburn, who grew up in the San Sebastian ghetto. That Danforth was white and Washburn black played into the scripts’ attempts at relevancy. Rhodes passed away much too early in 1992 at age 59.

What’s perhaps most distinctive about THE PROTECTORS is its lack of a musical score. It’s an odd choice by executive producer Jack Laird (NIGHT GALLERY) and not an entirely successful one. The show seems slowly paced because of it, and while I suppose the choice was made to give the production more realism, it isn’t shot in such a way to suggest it. This strategy was abandoned in the final episode, which featured a rock score by Tom Scott.

An experimental fast-cutting style and cinematography by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond in the first episode create the series’ strong visual sense. Another intriguing element is the use of audio from a political call-in radio show during the opening and closing scenes that paralleled the theme of each episode.

Partway through THE PROTECTORS’ run, NBC reportedly changed the title to THE LAW ENFORCERS in an effort to pick up viewers. Although THE LAWYERS and THE NEW DOCTORS proved quite popular with Sunday-night viewers, THE PROTECTORS was a flop and was cancelled after six shows.

Its replacement for the 1969-70 season was THE SENATOR, the most critically acclaimed BOLD ONES segment, starring Hal Holbrook as an idealistic politician, but it also didn’t last more than one season. THE LAWYERS and THE NEW DOCTORS filled out THE BOLD ONES’ third season with THE NEW DOCTORS holding the reins alone the fourth and final season.

I haven’t seen the pilot of THE PROTECTORS, which was directed by Lamont Johnson (another 2010 casualty) and written by Chester Krumholz and Robert E. Thompson with a story by William Sackheim and Roland Wolpert, but I have seen the six regular episodes and compiled the following episode guide.


THE PROTECTORS
Leslie Nielsen as Sam Danforth
Hari Rhodes as William Washburn

Music: Tom Scott (final episode only)
THE BOLD ONES Theme: Robert Prince
Cinematographers: Vilmos Zsigmond, Richard Batcheller, Richard C. Glouner
Art Director: Frank Arrigo, Alexander A. Mayer, Joseph Alves Jr.
Editors: Richard C. Meyer, Douglas Stewart, Thomas Scott, James Leicester
Associate Producer: Mark Rodgers
Producer: Jerrold Freedman
Creators: Roland Wolpert and William Sackheim
Executive Producer: Jack Laird
Filmed in Universal City, California at Universal Studios


“A Case of Good Whiskey at Christmas Time”
September 28, 1969
Teleplay: L.T. Bentwood and Betty Deveraux
Story: Robert I. Holt
Director: Robert Day
Guest Cast: Edward Andrews, Amy Thomson, Charles Drake, Lorraine Gary, Michael Bell, Frank Maxwell, Bart Carpinelli, Fabian Dean, Fred Williamson

Jack Sheehan (Charles Drake), a local politician suspected of accepting graft, is found floating in the harbor. Washburn and Danforth’s investigation of his murder uncovers corruption behind the construction of a low-income housing project.


“If I Should Wake Before I Die”
October 26, 1969
Teleplay: Adrian Spies
Story: Jerrold Freedman
Director: Daryl Duke
Guest Cast: Robert Drivas, Edmond O’Brien, Gene Evans, Milton Selzer, Len Wayland, Connie Kreski, Regis Cordic, Ron Stokes, Arthur Malet

Robert Drivas is excellent as Martin Sitomer, a Death Row prisoner who earns a new trial, causing Danforth to reopen the investigation that will provide a sympathetic Washburn with enough evidence to convict.


“Draw a Straight Man”
December 14, 1969
Writer: Sam Washington
Director: William Hale
Guest Cast: Michael Bell, Celeste Yarnall, Janine Gray, William Mims, Tom Reese, Peter Brocco, Charles Brewer, S. John Launer, Terence Garin, Bill Hickman

Washburn and Danforth are at odds when an elderly night watchman implicates two police officers in a robbery ring.


“The Carrier”
January 11, 1970
Teleplay: Mark Rodgers and Barry Trivers
Story: Paul Stein & Charles Watts
Director: Frank Arrigo
Guest Cast: Louise Sorel, Clifford David, Barbara Babcock, Frank Maxwell, Peter Mamakos, Mikel Angel, Joseph Perry, Carl Byrd, Walter Mathews, Carmen Zapata, Richard Dillon, Ira Angustain, Kurtis Laird

Danforth urgently seeks a Mexican-American boy and a man (Clifford David) who were exposed to a deadly virus that endangers the entire city. Directed by the series’ art director. Universal remade the teleplay as the KOJAK episode “A Wind from Corsica.”


“A Thing Not of God”
February 1, 1970
Teleplay: Mark Rodgers
Story: Harold Livingston and Mark Rodgers
Director: Jerrold Freedman
Guest Cast: Lynn Carlin, James Broderick, Lew Brown, Garry Walberg, Peter Brocco, Kenneth Kirk, Stuart Thomas, Carl Byrd

A priest (James Broderick) is attacked while protecting a young soldier (John Rubinstein) who’s thinking of deserting the Army.


“Memo from the Class of ‘76”
March 8, 1970
Teleplay: Ben Masselink
Story: Jerrold Freedman
Director: Daryl Duke
Guest Cast: Norma Crane, Billy Gray, Peter Hooten, Michael C. Gwynne, Claude Johnson, Danny Smaller, William Wintersole, Steve Pendleton, Carl Byrd, Richard Collier, Stuart Nisbet, S. John Launer, Matt Pelto, Fredricka Myers, Jack Bender, Don Lorbett, Cathe Cozzi

Danforth declares war on the local high school when several popular students are arrested for possessing marijuana. He has good reason to be worried when a new batch of acid is discovered to be deadly.


Here's an example of the main titles for THE BOLD ONES featuring the Robert Prince theme. However, it's from the second year after THE SENATOR had replaced THE PROTECTORS in the rotation:

Monday, November 29, 2010

This Year, Prom Night Will Be A Scream

Leslie Nielsen died yesterday in Florida at the age of 84. You can read his New York Times obituary here. His split careers as a dramatic and a comedic actor are well documented. From his U.S. television debut on STUDIO ONE through 1980, Nielsen was strictly known for drama, mainly in episodic television, though he also starred in the science fiction classic FORBIDDEN PLANET and played the ill-fated ship's captain in the disaster film THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

His life changed, however, in 1980, when writer/directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker hired him, along with other drama stalwarts like Peter Graves (who also died in 2010), Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges, to act in AIRPLANE! The conceit that Nielsen could be hilarious while doing exactly the same style of acting he had been doing his whole career was brilliant, and led to his second career spoofing himself in generally crummy comedies: SPY HARD, SCARY MOVIE 4, STAN HELSING, REPOSSESSED, THE CREATURE WASN'T NICE, MR. MAGOO...

Of course, ABC's shortlived POLICE SQUAD, which earned Nielsen his first Emmy nomination, spawned THE NAKED GUN and its two sequels, which, along with AIRPLANE!, led his obituaries.

But did you know that Nielsen co-starred in two features released theatrically in July of 1980? One was AIRPLANE! The other was a dumb Canadian slasher flick that has endured just as long, spawning three sequels and a 2008 remake.

PROM NIGHT’s following is more likely due to its catchy title and star turn by Jamie Lee Curtis, rather than its own worth as a horror movie. Just 20 years old during filming, Curtis had already starred in HALLOWEEN and THE FOG and would do TERROR TRAIN next.

Ten-year-old Robin Hammond is teased to death by four schoolmates, who panic and allow a local sex offender to be convicted for her murder. Six years later, the day of Alexander Hamilton High School’s prom, he escapes from custody and returns to town. That night, the four witnesses to Robin’s death, now teenagers, are harassed and stalked by an athletic masked killer dressed in black. Is there a connection?

Probably, though you’ll be kept guessing by the hilarious number of red herrings in the screenplay by William Gray and Robert Guza Jr., who also separately wrote other Canadian horror movies like CURTAINS, HUMONGOUS, and THE CHANGELING. David Cronenberg repertory player Robert Silverman (RABID) plays the school’s demented handyman. Curtis and Michael Tough play Robin’s teen siblings, and top-billed Nielsen is their father, the school principal. You may also recognize a blond Jeff Wincott (LAST MAN STANDING) and Anne-Marie Martin, billed as Eddie Benton, who went on to co-star in SLEDGE HAMMER! and co-write TWISTER with her late husband Michael Crichton.

An obvious ripoff of CARRIE, PROM NIGHT, for all its success, doesn’t really deliver the goods. No on-camera murders occur for the first hour, director Paul Lynch (BULLIES) stages the killings in a relatively bloodless manner (aside from a neat decapitation), there’s only a flash of nudity (the girls wear towels in the locker room), and the disco-filled soundtrack by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer earns snickers today.

Avco Embassy released PROM NIGHT in the U.S. to very good box office receipts of more than $14 million. Its popularity, along with that of FRIDAY THE 13TH, which was also released in the summer of 1980, played an enormous part in spurring the slasher genre that dominated the early 1980s.

Check out a pair of TV spots for PROM NIGHT, which misspell Nielsen's name, below:



Sunday, November 28, 2010

I'm The Bad Guy

Big names Morgan Freeman (INVICTUS) and John Cusack (CON AIR) and Freeman’s DRIVING MISS DAISY director Bruce Beresford went directly to DVD in THE CONTRACT, a Nu Image/Millennium thriller filmed mainly in Bulgaria.

Recently widowed high school gym coach Ray Keene (Cusack) and his surly teen delinquent-in-training son Chris (Jamie Anderson) are camping in the Washington wilderness when a stone killer drops into their midst. Big-time assassin Frank Carden (Freeman) escapes from custody, but is almost immediately recaptured by the Keenes, who just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ray, whose desire to be a good influence on his son has him set on taking Frank in, tries to take Frank in, but he and his boy have Carden’s team, a pack of government-trained killers, on their trail.

It’s all fairly routine thriller stuff with the occasionally sloppy writing balanced by the charming performances by Cusack and the always avuncular Freeman, who gets all the funny lines. It’s heavily padded with unnecessary subplots, as if the concept of Everyman and Killer confined in the woods, old as it is, wasn’t interesting enough (it is).

While THE CONTRACT is nothing special (and that goes for the title too), it’s good enough to play theaters, and it’s likely Millennium’s finances had more to do with it bypassing U.S. theaters than its quality. THE CONTRACT is a passable 96 minutes with pretty scenery and solid acting by two stars who are always welcome.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Best Worst Movie Ever Made Of All Time

Look out, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE! You have a new contender for the title of Worst Movie Ever Made, and it’s Italian director Claudio Fragasso’s insane TROLL 2, which barely eked out a U.S. video release in 1990.

Filmed in Utah with amateur American actors by a largely Italian crew that spoke little English, TROLL 2 has earned itself quite a cult following since the 2000s. This documentary—directed by the child star of TROLL 2, Michael Stevenson—examines the movie’s bizarre following and its impact on the lives of its performers two decades after it was made and promptly forgotten.

It comes as little surprise to learn that the people who made TROLL 2 are as eccentric as the film itself. Stevenson focuses BEST WORST MOVIE on the one-shot actor who played his father, George Hardy, who genially tromps around the country, attending screenings filled with fans who laugh uproariously at TROLL 2’s amateurish acting, writing, and special effects. The Alabama dentist shows what a good sport he is about TROLL 2’s reputation by constantly honoring fans’ request to quote his dialogue. And often quoting it even when nobody asks him to.

As comfortable as Hardy is with his notorious mark in cinematic history—indeed, he seems so eager to be the center of attention that he embraces his “stardom” with an enthusiasm that teeters into embarrassment—TROLL 2 director Fragasso comes across as confused and frustrated. He believes TROLL 2 is a good movie, and his temper flares occasionally when his cast disparages it.

Stevenson manages to track down almost every actor with a significant role, and it’s interesting to note the directions their lives have gone. Some, like Connie Young, who played the daughter with bad dancing skills, accept TROLL 2’s fandom calmly but with bemusement (though she still doesn’t list TROLL 2 on her acting resume). At the other extreme is Margo Prey, who played Stevenson’s mother and now appears to be a weird shut-in with an invalid mother.

I couldn’t decide whether BEST WORST MOVIE was crazy, depressing, or hilarious. It’s all three, really, at various times, and I suppose that’s fitting for a documentary about TROLL 2, as schizophrenic a movie as ever was made.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

That's Petro-CHELLI

Producer Brad Dexter (who acted in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) and director Sidney J. Furie (THE IPCRESS FILE) originally planned to make a docudrama based on the sensational murder case of Ohio physician Sam Sheppard, who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1954. Ten years later, Sheppard was granted a new trial, mainly because his first trial received so much publicity that it was believed the jury was tainted. At his new trial in 1966, represented by F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard was acquitted.

The Sam Sheppard murder case was obviously the inspiration for THE FUGITIVE, the television series with David Janssen as an Indiana physician convicted of killing his wife, but escaped custody and spent four seasons pursuing the one-armed man who really did the crime. Sheppard was later played on television by George Peppard (1975) and Peter Strauss (1998) in TV-movies.

Sheppard died in 1970, the same year Paramount released THE LAWYER, a brash courtroom drama that bore a great resemblance to the Sheppard case, but concentrated on the suspected killer’s attorney, rather than the Sheppard stand-in. Why Dexter and Furie decided not to dramatize the Sheppard case directly, I don’t know, though writers Furie and Harold Buchman certainly had more dramatic flexibility when crafting the screenplay.

Wilma Harrison (Mary Charlotte Wilcox) is beaten to death in her sleep, the recipient of 34 blows to the head. The detective in charge, Moran (Warren Kemmerling), arrests her husband, Dr. Jack Harrison (Robert Colbert), who claims he was awakened to the sound of Wilma being murdered, but was knocked unconscious before he could see who did it. Harrison’s attorney is not F. Lee Bailey, but root-beer-guzzling Harvard grad Tony Petrocelli (Barry Newman), who displays a flagrant regard for authority and traffic laws. Petrocelli drives a camper and lives in a mobile home with his wife Ruth (Diana Muldaur).

THE LAWYER’s small-town setting leads to some unusual moments, such as a coroner’s inquest staged at the grandstand of the local fairgrounds, complete with a jeering crowd and hot dog vendors. The carnival atmosphere that permeated the Sheppard case is faithfully duplicated by Furie, which really puts Harrison in a hole.

To give the mystery some variety and pacing, Furie and Buchman tell the story using flashbacks that may or may not represent what actually happened in the Harrison bedroom. Argyle Nelson’s sophisticated editing, as well as dollops of frank talk and nudity (THE LAWYER received an R rating from the MPAA), help provide the whodunit with extra tension. Harold Gould as the state’s attorney is excellent and a strong opponent for Newman. Furie stages most of his cross-examination of Colbert in one long take that shows off his performance.

Newman, a relative screen newcomer, became something of a cult actor for his car-chase performances in VANISHING POINT and FEAR IS THE KEY. Hotshot Tony Petrocelli fits Newman like one of those natty suits he wears, and the star brought the character to television in 1974 in the series PETROCELLI, which ran two seasons on NBC and earned Newman an Emmy nomination.

THE LAWYER was never released on VHS or DVD, so it has been difficult to see since its theatrical release. Thankfully, Paramount has made it available through Netflix instant streaming. The R-rated material is intact, but the print is full-frame.

Here is the opening title sequence to PETROCELLI with a shaggier-haired Newman and some footage from THE LAWYER:

Friday, November 12, 2010

You Must Be Dreaming

New Line Cinema’s second sequel to its smash horror hit A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was a crucial one, as it marked the transformation of its dream-weaving serial killer Freddy Krueger from terrifying screen villain to comical folk hero. With the addition of humor to the scares, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS became less frightening, but also more appealing to a mass audience, which began buying Freddy souvenirs and action figures.

It’s a step up from PART 2, in spite of the jumbled pre-production involving four screenwriters. Elm Street creator Wes Craven was invited to script Part Three with his partner Bruce Wagner (WILD PALMS), though it was heavily rewritten by Frank Darabont (later to direct THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE MIST) and the series’ new director, Chuck Russell, the DREAMSCAPE author making his debut behind the lens. The story offers more than a few imaginative setpieces and a definite surprise or two near the end.

Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), returning from the original film, is an intern at an asylum, where she works with suicidal teenagers with nightmare disorders. From their symptoms, she recognizes them as victims of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) and works with a skeptical Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) to prevent Freddy from attacking them through their dreams.

Patricia Arquette, later the star of MEDIUM, plays Kristin, Freddy’s main nemesis. A fatherless teen with latent psychic powers, Kristin is able to invite others to participate in her dreams. Only by calling together Nancy and the surviving teens into her latest nightmare do they have a chance to destroy Freddy.

Of course, the fantastic premise provides plenty of opportunities to showcase imaginative special effects, and Russell’s crew is more than up to the task. Kevin Yagher, Greg Cannom, and Mark Shostrom create the icky makeup effects, and Dream Quest Images and Doug Beswick handle the practical effects, which include a gigantic phallus-shaped “Freddy Snake” that swallows Kristin and a stop-motion Freddy marionette. Englund surprisingly has little screen time, but the script and cast keep him always in the forefront of the audience’s mind.

Brooke Bundy, Larry Fishburne (THE MATRIX), Nan Martin, and Priscilla Pointer add steady adult support to the young cast, helping to ground the fantasy in something tangible, as does John Saxon, returning as Nancy’s policeman father and the worse for wear. Jennifer Rubin (making her film debut; oddly, her next movie was BAD DREAMS!), Bradley Gregg, Ken Sagoes, Penelope Sudrow, and Ira Heiden are good as Arquette’s fellow patients. And, yes, that really is Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor making cameos.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

My Interview With Video Watchdogger John Charles

Although John Charles and I have never met, we have been friends for just about a decade. We first became acquainted as members of and regular posters at Mobius Home Video Forum back around 1999 or so. Not long afterwards, we began corresponding through email and trading VHS tapes back and forth between Central Illinois and Ontario. Now, it's text messages and DVDs.

John is also Associate Editor of Video Watchdog (the latest issue carries his interview with dubbing specialist Ted Rusoff) and the author of the essential THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, 1977–1997: A REFERENCE GUIDE TO 1,100 FILMS PRODUCED BY BRITISH HONG KONG STUDIOS, now in its second printing from McFarland. If he didn't cover it in the book, it's probably on his Hong Kong Digital website.

John is a bright, interesting guy—and I'm not just saying that because we have similar tastes in film! John and I conducted this interview via email.

Since you literally wrote the book on Hong Kong Cinema, I'm curious how a teenager in Canada in the 1980s got hooked on the genre. I'm guessing these films weren't easy to find.

Thanks for the kind words. Aside from the Shaw Brothers kung fu movies that ran in World Northal's Black Belt Theater TV packages, I didn't actually get into Hong Kong films until 1991. At the time, Erik Sulev was reviewing them for Video Watchdog and also selling dupes of the big HK titles through his label, White Dragon Video. Erik made these films sound incredible, as did a few other writers at the time. I figured it was likely hype, but I was intrigued enough to buy a copy of John Woo's THE KILLER from him (he was selling the extended Taiwanese version, though I didn't know that at the time). I watched THE KILLER...and then immediately watched it again. I was just intoxicated by the incredible action sequences, the unbridled but involving melodrama of the storyline, Woo's incredible directorial technique, and the charisma of Chow Yun-fat. I then bought A CHINESE GHOST STORY and ANGEL from Erik, and loved them almost as much.

I immediately wanted to see a ton of these movies, but didn't want to continue paying $30 or so for each of them, so I looked into renting tapes from local Chinese grocery stores. Once I overcame the communication barrier (which started with the inevitable "No, no, no English movies here!" after I stepped two feet into the video section), I found the tapes to be almost unwatchable. I had a laserdisc player by that point and knew from Erik and other guys in the Toronto zine community that HK laserdiscs were decent quality and pretty widely available, so I set about traveling back and forth from Toronto, renting 6 or 7 movies at a time in order to make the trips worthwhile.

Did you see any of Jackie Chan's movies then?

I had seen some of the Chan movies that had been released in English up to that point, though the only one I had seen theatrically was the infamous SNAKE FIST FIGHTER. When I started renting movies in Chinatown, I got caught up with Chan's back catalog, though it was tricky because the vast majority of Golden Harvest's movies were released on LD by a company called Star Entertainment and their transfers almost never had subtitles. So, if you wanted to see movies featuring Chan or other Golden Harvest stars, you had to rely on the old Cantonese tapes (which were invariably terrible and sometimes also lacked subtitles) or the Mandarin-dubbed Taiwanese tapes (which often had subs and were somewhat better quality, though usually only available as dupey bootlegs).

I know you saw most of the Cannon films theatrically in the 1980s, but were you also already a fan of other types of "psychotronic" movies?

Oh god, yeah, I was warped by this stuff from an early age. I remember getting very disapproving looks in Grade 6 during one of those "what did you do on the weekend?" discussions. Other kids discussed family trips, scouting and the like, while I talked about being amazed by ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE on WUTV's Sci-Fi Theater. Not really what our teacher was looking for, but I think he was getting used to my interests in life by that point. That was also the year that I met Dean Dawson and he introduced me to Famous Monsters of Filmland. Within months, I went from being a nearly straight A student to the low Cs and stayed in that range until university (where I finally got my act together and graduated with honors).

I'm guessing you had the same "I have seen God" reaction when you first ran across Michael Weldon's PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM, a compendium of the sort of weird movies I loved and write-ups for a bunch more I'd never even heard of (INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS?! What the hell is that and where do I find a copy?). I figured Weldon probably wasn't making a living writing about these movies, but it was close enough to my idea of a dream job that I decided to try my hand at reviewing.

I was gonna ask you about the Weldon book. It came out when I was in high school. I was bowled over by the impressive range of movies. I liked sci-fi then. Not horror so much, though I was familiar with the Universal pictures that played on TV a lot. But the Weldon book described not just sci-fi and horror, but biker flicks and cannibal movies and weird stuff like Hugo Haas melodramas (which I've still never seen). And Weldon made them sound so enticing in just a paragraph or two. How could we have ever guessed we would someday see stuff like INCUBUS (1965) in our living rooms? I remember reading about Al Adamson and Larry Buchanan and Andy Milligan, these bottom-of-the-barrel filmmakers, and being so intrigued by Weldon's descriptions of their movies. And when I finally got to see them, they were just as terrible as I expected!

Yes, we are just unbelievably spoiled nowadays when it comes to obscure cinema. I didn't get a VCR until I was 16 (and was the only kid in high school to have one, which instantly boosted my cred), so prior to that, I would stay up late to see some probably cruddy low-budget horror movie because who knew if it would ever run again? Now, you can just go online and find most any movie you can think of for sale. Also, fansubbers have made a number of otherwise inaccessible foreign films easily obtainable in versions that English speakers can fully appreciate.

Even though they're often terrible and arguably not worth the effort, time, or expense we go to in order to see them, we still keep coming back. Why do you think that is? I've never seen GOODFELLAS or GONE WITH THE WIND, but I've seen about a dozen Al Adamson movies. There must be a reason for that.

I think there's a bit of cinematic archeologist in many bad film fans. Sure, many of these pictures are rubbish, but they're often incredibly unique and wonderfully peculiar. Anyone can stroll into work and talk about watching MAD MEN the night before, but I've managed to see the surviving footage from COMPASS ROSE, one of Andy Milligan's unfinished movies. Precious few people will care (or even know who the hell I'm talking about), but I like having that distinction.

I remember reading someone--it might have been Stephen King?--called it panning for gold. There is a certain thrill to plowing through a bunch of forgettable flicks hardly anyone has heard of and then finding that rare diamond in the rough. Either something surprisingly good (SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE, as obscure a good thriller as they come, is an example) or amazingly, hilariously bad. The fun is not just in unearthing it, but sharing it with other fans.

Did you write the book before or after you joined the Video Watchdog staff?

Yes, SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE is a good example of a movie I knew nothing about that turned out to be much better than expected.

Erik Sulev left VW after a few issues, so I took over the HK reviews from that point on, circa 1993. I started the book in earnest in 1997.

Okay, let's talk about VW first. You go way back with Tim and Donna Lucas almost to the beginning of the publication, right? Tell me how you got started there.

I became familiar with Tim's work through his Video Watchdog column in Gorezone. When he announced that he was starting his own magazine, I subscribed immediately. I knew that the Vestron unrated version of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was missing footage and had heard the Canadian CIC Video release was intact, so I tracked them both down, charted the differences, and sent that information in. My letter was published in issue #3 and I continued to send in write-ups on other video releases that also ended up in the Letters section. Tim eventually decided that I could write and knew my stuff, so he offered me a spot on staff. I took over the Canadian video reviews and made my debut in issue #12 with that cinematic milestone ABRAXAS, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE. This was so long ago (1992), I actually typed the reviews out and mailed them in.

In the eighteen years that you've been on the VW staff, what are the most significant differences between genre movies then and now?

Well, around 1990, we really began to descend into a mire of cynically conceived and often poorly executed sequels, remakes, prequels, and imitations, with fewer and fewer genuinely original and exciting productions getting made and properly distributed. Now, 20 years later, the situation is essentially the same, only much worse.

On the one hand, thank God for foreign movies and old movies. Between those and titles I am eager to revisit, I will never run out of films to watch. However, part of me is still drawn to seeing movies on the big screen, even though the real gems are few and far between these days. The moviegoing experience has also never been better from a technical standpoint, but I can't remember a time when I felt less like being in the middle of a crowded theatre. That said, I still see 3-4 movies a month theatrically, and if I lived in Toronto and had easy access to great rep venues like The Bell Lightbox and The Bloor, it would probably be 10-12.

As you know, Hollywood has never been more cynical than it has been the last three or four years, seemingly remaking every horror picture in sight. Even less iconic films such as THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW and TERROR TRAIN have been jammed through the sausage maker to less than satisfactory results. That said, are there any genre movies you'd actually like to see remade? And why?

Remakes should only really happen if there is something about the current era that might lend new interest to an older storyline, or improved technology can better realize something that was beyond the budget of the older picture. I guess about the only saving grace to be found in the current avalanche of remakes is that many of these older movies were hardly sacred texts to begin with. I mean THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW? Last year's remake was rancid and actively annoyed me, but it hardly sullied the original in my eyes.

I wouldn't mind seeing someone take another shot at lesser pictures like FOOD OF THE GODS, EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, and the like, which have fun premises but didn't really come off. The little kid in me would love to see a big budget re-do of ROBOT JOX and some of the other Charles Band pictures that were too ambitious for their own good. I'd rather the genuinely good pictures simply be left up on the mantelpiece for us to continue admiring.

What are your duties as Associate Editor of Video Watchdog? Aside from the film reviews and occasional article.

I occasionally offer input on whether we should accept a certain feature and offer suggestions about how certain departments might be improved, but mainly I'm a proofreader. Each issue is usually read five times, with Tim doing the first read, then me, then him checking my corrections and making any others, me checking those and making any additional changes, and him doing the final check.

Why did you decide to write the Hong Kong Filmography book and how did you go about it?

I quickly grew to love these movies with a passion and was eager for more information. Unfortunately, almost without exception, English commentators writing about these movies clearly knew little or nothing about them and their personnel, with Tom Weisser's godawful Asian Cult Cinema book being the low point. There's just no excuse for that book, and it was what prompted me to write my own HK movie guide, a project I ended up spending 2 1/2 years on.

Sounds like you wrote it because it was the book you wanted to read and nobody else was writing it!

Essentially!

Why pick 1977 as a start date? It seems like so many seminal HK works came out before that date. For instance, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH aka KING BOXER, which is (and I know you'll correct me if I'm wrong) considered the first HK martial arts film to become an American mainstream hit.

McFarland wanted a time line that could be included in the title (which is on the wordy side; I would have been happy with just THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY 1977 - 1997) and given what movies were available to me, this two-decade span seemed like the best choice. In the years since then, the Shaw Brothers vault has opened up, and several hundred previously unavailable titles are now on the market. That is the one area where I think the book now falls a bit short, but I included as many Shaw titles as were available to me from 1997 to early 2000, when I submitted the manuscript, and went on to cover a few dozen more on my Hong Kong Digital website and in VW.

What are your favorite films covered in the book, and which one do you think has fallen under the radar, but deserves more attention?

Ten years down the line, my favorites are still the ones that really got me hooked on HK cinema: THE KILLER, A CHINESE GHOST STORY, DRUNKEN MASTER II, ROUGE, ASHES OF TIME, THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, PROJECT A II, BULLET IN THE HEAD, PEKING OPERA BLUES, THE PRODIGAL SON, EIGHT DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER, THE FIVE VENOMS, and LEGENDARY WEAPONS ON CHINA.

Sleepers? Can't name just one. I really like PEOPLE'S HERO, a tense hold-up movie with a terrific central performance by Ti Lung. BET ON FIRE is a great example of the Hostess Movie, a popular '80s sub-genre where invariably beautiful young women in desperate straits try to survive the temptations of crime and drugs in the world of HK hostess bars; melodramatic trash, but strangely endearing and in the case of this film, admirably intense. DRAGON CHRONICLES: THE MAIDENS OF HEAVENLY MOUNTAIN is viewed by most as a colossal disappointment, but I love its odd, comic book inspired visuals and flagrantly hammy lead performances by Brigitte Lin and Gong Li; its stock with go up if a coherently subtitled version ever surfaces. POM POM AND HOT HOT is a raucous and very entertaining buddy cop comedy mixing sophomoric humor and the wildest gunplay this side of a John Woo movie. GUNMEN is a blatant imitation of Brian DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES, but it has great, violent action and Kirk Wong's stylish direction to distinguish it. EDGE OF DARKNESS is a superior Triad/undercover cop movie directed by veteran stuntman Fung Hark-on that nobody seems to have seen, but is very efficient and satisfying. Those stand out for me.

What's next? Any more books down the pipe?

Nothing at the moment. I've spent the last few years catching up on all of the American, British and European movies that I missed while going HK crazy and spend most of my time now glued to Turner Classic Movies. So, maybe I will someday write a book on 1930s Old Dark House movies to go alongside your inevitable Bowery Boys tome.

Ha, right! Big thanks to John Charles. Be sure to pick up the current issue of Video Watchdog featuring John's interview with Ted Rusoff. John's book THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, 1977–1997: A REFERENCE GUIDE TO 1,100 FILMS PRODUCED BY BRITISH HONG KONG STUDIOS is available in paperback on Amazon.

The Voice Of John Ashley

John Ashley was a Kansas City-born actor who broke into the movies in the late 1950s in a series of low-budget melodramas, such as MOTORCYCLE GANG, HOT ROD GANG, and FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER. Handsome and blessed with a terrific speaking voice, Ashley eventually made his way to American International Pictures, where he co-starred with other young stars like Frankie Avalon and his wife Deborah Walley in frothy comedies like BIKINI BEACH and SERGEANT DEADHEAD.

Something of a self-starter who was probably getting bored with formulaic comedies and TV guest shots, Ashley went to the Philippines in 1968 to star in a series of cheap, colorful horror movies that became known as the Blood Island trilogy: BRIDES OF BLOOD, MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, and BEAST OF BLOOD. More importantly, he started producing them too, and cranked out several lurid horror pictures of independent distributors like Hemisphere Pictures and Roger Corman's New World Pictures. In fact, Ashley's BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT was the first film distributed to theaters by New World.

By the end of the 1970s, Ashley had retired from acting and become a full-time producer. One of his jobs was producing THE A-TEAM for Stephen J. Cannell, who remembered Ashley's acting career when it came time to create the opening titles for the series. Not only did Ashley supply the familiar A-TEAM narration (admit it--you know it by heart), but Cannell also tapped him to narrate the opening of HARDCASTLE & MCCORMICK a year later.

In case you've always wondered who that voice was, here's John Ashley in THE A-TEAM and HARDCASTLE & MCCORMICK:





Both themes were composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Welcome To Your New Nightmare

After eight films and a television series that brought in boffo box office for the studio, New Line turned its lucrative NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise over to uber-producer Michael Bay (TRANSFORMERS) and a music video director, Samuel Bayer, making his first feature film. Sounds like a terrible idea, and though this 2010 remake isn’t a good movie, it made back its bucks and more, and that’s all that counts in Hollywood.

I don’t think the filmmakers even understand horror movies. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET looks as though they watched other horror movies to see how they worked, but they didn’t watch any good ones—just the pallid remakes of them. Full of loud music stings, yellow-brown cinematography, and unimaginative setpieces, the remake even wastes what looks like a sound idea on paper: the casting of intense Jackie Earle Haley (WATCHMEN) as child killer-turned-dream invader Freddy Krueger.

Like the rest of the movie, Haley tries to get by on appearance alone, but doesn’t quite cut it. He lacks the energy and black humor that Robert Englund brought to the role. It’s true that Freddy became less scary in the later sequels when New Line started playing up the comedy to make him a more family-friendly serial killer, but in the original NIGHTMARE, Englund played the perfect balance of menace and joker—a psychopath who enjoyed his job. Haley has the look down and appears to be trying, but the script and direction are just going through the motions.

The story and even some of the setpieces are familiar. The teenagers on Elm Street are having trouble sleeping, because their nightmares are being invaded by a horribly mutilated madman in a slouch hat and striped sweater who threatens to murder them. When some of the kids die in apparent suicides, only Nancy Holbrook (Rooney Mara, star of the American remake of GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) understands they’re being murdered in their dreams by Freddy Krueger.

While technically accomplished in many ways, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET suffers from a lack of imagination, humor, and verve. Its gloomy protagonists played by Mara and the equally somber Kyle Gallner fail to make us care about them, and Bayer and his writers aren’t good at making us care about anything else.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Let The Revenge Fit The Crime

The late Bob Kelljan was a very good director of low-budget action movies and television shows during the 1970s, in particular three vampire movies for American International Pictures—COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE and its sequel, as well as SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (perhaps Kelljan became typecast in the genre, as he also helmed a STARSKY & HUTCH episode that guest-starred John Saxon as a killer who thought he was a vampire). One of his more obscure films is 1974's RAPE SQUAD, a sleazy thriller with a politically incorrect title and whiplash-inducing mixed messages of female empowerment and leering sexploitation.

Familiar television guest star Jo Ann Harris (MOST WANTED) toplines as Linda, a lunch-wagon proprietress who becomes the latest victim of the Jingle Bells Rapist (Peter Brown), an egotist in a hockey mask and orange jumpsuit who forces women to sing the Christmas carol while he assaults them. The police, represented by detective Long (Ross Elliott), are ineffective, so the victims decide to organize a “rape squad”—a vigilante group with a 24-hour hotline dedicated to capturing rapists, mashers, perverts, pimps, and even obscene phone callers. They take karate lessons from diminutive Tiny (Lada Edmund Jr.), who teaches them how to crush a mannequin’s testicles with a baton.

Soon, the newly empowered women are running all over L.A. at the drop of a dime, entrapping a sleazy club manager (Tony Young) with an eye for Harris’ curves in a see-through dress and beating a street pimp who smacks his girls around. Naturally, ol’ Jingle Bells discovers the women’s game plan to crush his jewels, and he plots a return match.

Like many exploitation movies of the era, particularly those from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures that teamed up three stewardesses, nurses, teachers, etc., RAPE SQUAD tries to have it both ways—to offer strong, independent female characters in control of their own lives, while still dishing out a healthy amount of nudity and violence against women. Rape scenes were frequently inserted into these films for their titillation value, as an excuse to provide its slobbering audience with a pair of bare boobs.

Of course, if the film doesn’t show rape as the horrifying and indefensible crime that it is, it runs the danger of not providing the drama with a strong motivation for the heroines’ revenge. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Perhaps aware of this, co-writer David Kidd used the pseudonym “Betty Conklin,” as he did on Jack Hill’s THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS, to counteract any criticism of misogyny. Kidd’s screenplay with H.R. Christian (BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA) does its best to portray its rape victims with a certain amount of sensitivity, while still paying strict attention to AIP’s commercial demands for boobs and blood.

Give Kelljan credit for handling the difficult material with aplomb, delivering a suspenseful and occasionally thoughtful thriller that may not have set the drive-ins on fire on first run. RAPE SQUAD was re-released in theaters as the less incendiary ACT OF VENGEANCE, which is also the title on the Thorn EMI/HBO videocassette print and the MGM print available for instant streaming from Netflix.

Adding much to the film is Brown’s performance as the narcissistic rapist. Appearing in most of his scenes with his face covered by a hockey mask that predates the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, the handsome television star (LAREDO), who also played the heavy in AIP’s FOXY BROWN the same year, is nasty, cutting off his victims’ clothing, brutalizing their breasts, and compelling them to sing aloud (why “Jingle Bells” is never explained) and compliment him on his “lovemaking” skills.

Harris, a beautiful brunette who began appearing regularly on TV in 1968, usually as a scheming vamp in episodic guest shots or as the lead in several unsold pilots (including the Jane Fonda role in a CAT BALLOU remake), gives an intelligent, sexy performance as Brown’s nemesis—a smart, self-sufficient small-business owner who risks her life and, in an unusual twist, the lives of her friends in her obsession with her attacker’s capture. Jennifer Lee, Connie Strickland, Patricia Estrin, and Lisa Moore are strong as Harris’ fellow vigilantes.

Where RAPE SQUAD has really dated—for the best—is its portrayal of the authorities’ investigation. Statements are taken by male policeman who insinuate that the victim may have invited her attacker to rape her, and the medical examination is shown as a cold, sterile, clinically depressing exercise. Thankfully, laws have since been passed that make it easier and less embarrassing for a rape victim to report her crime. It would be interesting to see a contemporary remake. The elements for a commercial thriller are certainly there, especially the notion of five sexy young women kicking the asses of men, who all are depicted in RAPE SQUAD as being sexist thugs.

Now that other unheralded ‘70s drive-in flicks like THE CANDY SNATCHERS and BONNIE’S KIDS, both well-made, offbeat thrillers that were difficult to see for a long time, have been given lavish DVD releases, perhaps it’s time for RAPE SQUAD—likely under the ACT OF VENGEANCE title used on Netflix—to receive its just due on DVD.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

It Wants To Get Out

Even ten years later, producer Roger Corman was still ripping off ALIEN. 1989's THE TERROR WITHIN has the formula down cold, trapping a handful of actors inside a dark confined space and letting a rubber monster loose to cause all kinds of bloody hell. THE TERROR WITHIN proves the formula can still work so long as the actors are committed to the sensational material and the creature delivers plenty of action and gore.

Eight military scientists are among the few survivors of some kind of virus that destroyed all life on Earth. From their underground base in the Mojave Desert (represented by Bronson Canyon and Vasquez Rocks), they seek a cure. Sometimes they have to venture outside, where roam murderous creatures called gargoyles, but are actually mutated humans.

While scouting, lovers David (Andrew Stevens) and Sue (Starr Andreeff) find a survivor and bring her to the base. Doctor Linda (Terri Treas) learns the young woman is pregnant with a mutant baby. During an attempted abortion, the monster fetus escapes into the air vent. It grows to full size almost immediately—a six-foot scaly creature with big teeth and nasty claws—and stalks the base, slaughtering the men and snatching the women for mating purposes.

So Thomas Cleaver’s (HEROES STAND ALONE) screenplay is rote, and the monster designed by Dean Jones looks exactly like what it is, which is a stuntman wearing a rubber suit. Okay, that’s fine; horror fans are used to that, and it can even be kind of fun. And THE TERROR WITHIN is a perfectly adequate time-killer with better-than-usual acting for this type of movie, some occasionally snappy dialogue, and good use of its limited budget.

Top-billed George Kennedy, who plays the commanding officer of the underground base, is unfortunately not used very well, limited to barking a few orders before his early demise. Stevens, just making the move from television actor to leading man in B-pictures, is an agreeable hero, flocked by the determined Treas (next on ALIEN NATION) and the appealing Andreeff, an unusual-looking actress with large brown eyes who was a regular fixture in exploitation movies for a decade.

Cleaver’s story of a scaly beast that rapes women is tastefully handled by director Thierry Notz (WATCHERS II), who gets good mileage out of the few sets at his disposal, shooting them at visually inventive angles that make the sets look varied and provide suspense. Sharp editing and a good orchestral score by Rick Conrad (THE NEST) help make THE TERROR WITHIN one of Concorde’s last memorable films. Stevens got to write and direct the sequel, THE TERROR WITHIN II, which Corman released in 1991.

Moving on to 1991's DEAD SPACE, producer Roger Corman’s uncredited remake of his own FORBIDDEN WORLD has the novelty value of co-starring Bryan Cranston, today an Emmy-winning star of MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE and BREAKING BAD. It is, unfortunately, inferior in almost every way to FORBIDDEN WORLD. It has less sex and gore, less imaginative sets, duller characters, and less production value. I wouldn’t be surprised if Corman spent less money on DEAD SPACE than he did on FORBIDDEN WORLD a decade earlier.

Space troubleshooter Steve Krieger (Marc Singer) and his robot sidekick Tinpan (Rodger Hall) are summoned to investigate an emergency at a scientific facility on the planet Phaebon. Experiments there have accidentally created a nasty monster that roams the base bumping off the cast in more or less reverse billing order. At this point in his career, Corman seemed less concerned with quality than in holding the pursestrings tighter. One exterior scene was probably shot in the New Horizons parking lot, and you can see studio buildings and telephone poles in the background.

Of course, budget was always a concern on Corman movies—he earned his reputation as King of the B’s by stretching a dollar as far it could go—but he wanted them to be good too. By the time he sold New World Pictures and started Concorde/New Horizons, I feel making good movies was no longer as much a priority as making profitable ones.

Because it apes FORBIDDEN WORLD, an ‘80s sleaze classic, so closely, DEAD SPACE is an ideal example of Corman’s ‘90s approach to filmmaking. DEAD SPACE lacks the excess and imagination of its inspiration, and Catherine Cyran’s (BLOODFIST II) screenplay seems determined to ignore what was most interesting about FORBIDDEN WORLD. It gives us less action, less sex, and more of the stupid robot. Singer, who earlier fought aliens in V, is a fine approximation of Jesse Vint, but the rest of the cast—yes, including Cranston—is completely forgettable. It’s difficult to even tell one character from the others.

The monster is actually pretty good. However, in his debut feature after earning a Master’s from the USC film school, director Fred Gallo (DRACULA RISING) struggles to generate suspense, and Cyran doesn’t give the actors anything colorful or juicy to say.

As part of Shout Factory's Roger Corman's Cult Classics collection, THE TERROR WITHIN and DEAD SPACE make for a thematically coherent but dramatically inconsistent DVD. THE TERROR WITHIN, by far the superior film, is given preferential treatment, presented in a very attractive 1.78:1 print. DEAD SPACE, even though it did play a few theaters, is shown in a full-frame version and was shot using so much fog that it's unlikely it ever looked good.

Director Fred Gallo joins Jeff McKay on an alternate commentary for DEAD SPACE, which is really the best way to watch the film. Gallo is very good telling the tale of what it was like to work at the Corman factory in 1990, and has plenty of stories and how-to tips for low-budget filmmakers. I wish someone could have provided an audio commentary for THE TERROR WITHIN too, but be sure to listen to DEAD SPACE's. Shout Factory has also included trailers, though not for either film on the DVD, and you can watch both films together as part of the "Grindhouse Experience," which includes trailers and an intermission.

THE TERROR WITHIN/DEAD SPACE is not likely to be one of the best in Shout Factory's excellent series of Roger Corman productions, but the decent quality of the former film coupled with the educational value of the latter's director commentary makes the disc worthwhile for drive-in fans.

Traci Lords Definitely Is

Those familiar with director Jim Wynorski’s habit of taking stock footage from more expensive Hollywood blockbusters to pad his own cheapies may be surprised at the extent he does here. In NOT OF THIS EARTH, the 1980s remake of Roger Corman’s 1957 B-movie, Wynorski (CHOPPING MALL) steals entire scenes from Corman productions like HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, GALAXY OF TERROR, FORBIDDEN WORLD, and HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, which results in sloppy continuity like an old ‘50s sedan turning miraculously into a ‘70s pickup truck just before it plunges off a bridge. Most hilarious is the opening title sequence, which recycles random footage behind Chuck Cirino’s catchy music.

Wynorski and R.J. Robertson’s screenplay follows that of the original film, penned by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, extremely closely. An invading alien called Mr. Johnson (REVENGE OF THE NINJA's Arthur Roberts) is here to test the blood of Earthlings and send it home to his planet, Davanna, to make sure his race can drink it. In his guise of an eccentric millionaire, he skulks around the city at night, draining people of their blood and returning home in time for his comely private nurse, Nadine (Traci Lords), to give him his nightly transfusion.

An amusing mixture of science fiction, horror, and T&A, NOT OF THIS EARTH is one of Wynorski’s finer efforts, thanks to its sense of humor and the surprisingly effective performance by 18-year-old Lords, who was starring in her first mainstream film after a notorious career in pornography. Not only does she look smashing in and out of a variety of bikinis, lingerie, and evening wear, but she comes across as an appealing heroine. Muggers like Lenny Juliano, Ace Mask, and Michael Delano (playing the memorable vacuum cleaner salesman essayed by Dick Miller in the Corman version) provide plenty of energy, while Becky LeBeau, Monique Gabrielle, Rebecca Perle, Ava Cadell, Roxanne Kernohan, Cynthia Thompson, and Kelli Maroney provide the pulchritude.

Shout Factory’s new DVD offers Wynorski’s film in widescreen for the first time since its Concorde theatrical release in 1988. Part of the company’s Roger Corman Cult Classics collection, the DVD includes two audio commentaries: one new track teaming Wynorski and Lords, who share nice camaraderie and enjoy reminiscing, and a Wynorski/Juliano track from the old Concorde/New Horizons DVD, which is also entertaining. Other extras include a short on-camera interview with Lords, who remembers NOT OF THIS EARTH with fondness; a still gallery; and trailers for this film, the 1957 original, STARCRASH, and GALAXY OF TERROR.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Rich Man, Poor Man

Based on Irwin Shaw’s dense 1969 best-seller, RICH MAN, POOR MAN ran twelve hours and was a runaway success for ABC. It was the second highest rated series of the season, earned 23 Emmy nominations (winning four), and helped inspire television networks to adapt more novels for the small screen. The next few years would see networks handing over precious airtime to high-minded miniseries of ROOTS, THE CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS, THE WINDS OF WAR, SHOGUN, and even Shaw’s BEGGARMAN, THIEF, to name just a handful.

Dean Riesner’s adaptation follows the two scions of the Jordache family—all-American Rudy (Peter Strauss) and black sheep Tom (Nick Nolte)—from the end of World War II through the mid-1960s. The progeny of a brutal German immigrant, Axel Jordache (Edward Asner), and his wife Mary (Dorothy McGuire), who run a bakery in upper New York state, Rudy and Tom go their separate ways early—Rudy to college and then success as a businessman working for department store magnate Duncan Calderwood (Ray Milland), the disowned Tom as a mechanic working for Axel’s brother in California and eventually as a has-been boxer on the run from the Syndicate.

Missing from the miniseries is the Jordaches’ sister Gretchen, whom Riesner replaced with the upper-crust Julie Prescott (Susan Blakely), Rudy’s high-school girlfriend who experiences several romantic misadventures and a failed career as an actress in New York City. The creation of Julie is a good one, giving Rudy not only a romantic arc, but also an intriguing character trait of a man who claws his way to the top and has everything except the one woman he has always loved.

Riesner (DIRTY HARRY) and the series’ three directors—David Greene, Bill Bixby (who also plays Julie’s irresponsible writer husband Willie Abbott), and Boris Sagal—cut back and forth among the three major subplots, which occasionally bang into one another to create sparks. It’s a testament to everyone involved that all three storylines are fascinating, well-paced, and rest comfortably on the shoulders of Strauss, Nolte, and Blakely. All three earned Emmy nominations and became major Hollywood stars based on their work in RICH MAN, POOR MAN; of course, Nolte moved into motion pictures with THE DEEP and a big break in the raucous NORTH DALLAS FORTY.

Interestingly, RICH MAN, POOR MAN doesn’t appear to have crushed the budgets of executive producer Harve Bennett (THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) or producer Jon Epstein (THE RAT PATROL); in fact, I imagine the directors barely left the Universal lot. The production is almost a throwback to the kitchen-sink era of dramatic television, and with a marvelous cast like RICH MAN, POOR MAN’s, one can see that standing back and letting the performers do their thing with Riesner’s layered script was the wise path to walk. Even when things threaten to get soapy near the end with the appearance of Tom’s archenemy Falconetti (William Smith), one of the scariest heavies in television history, the directors keep the drama on an even keel.

Alex North won an Emmy for his score, as did Greene for his direction and actors Asner and Fionnula Flanagan. Also supporting the leads are Robert Reed as the marvelously oily local tycoon Teddy Boylan, Kim Darby, Gloria Grahame, Tim McIntire, Murray Hamilton, Steve Allen, Talia Shire, Norman Fell, Craig Stevens, Lawrence Pressman, George Maharis, Lynda Day George, Van Johnson, Andrew Duggan, Berry Kroeger, Harvey Jason, George Wyner, Dick Sargent, Dorothy Malone, Kay Lenz, Dick Butkus, Herbert Jefferson Jr., and Dennis Dugan.

ABC first aired RICH MAN, POOR MAN within six weeks in February and March 1976 and again in the summer of 1977. In between, ABC tried to recapture lightning in a bottle by commissioning RICH MAN, POOR MAN: BOOK II, which had little to nothing to do with Irwin Shaw, but brought back Peter Strauss as Rudy Jordache, now raising the sons of Tom and Julie. Produced as a regular weekly one-hour series with 22 episodes for the 1976-77 season, BOOK II was also a ratings success, though not on the level of BOOK I (as the original miniseries was called in reruns).