10 movies that were actually unsold TV pilots
Originally intended for the small screen, these movies all played in theaters!
For every hit TV show, there are countless unsold pilots that never see the light of day. Often fully filmed and edited, these one-off episodes languish in obscurity. Sometimes, however, the hard work put in by the actors and crew is not in vain.
Here are ten projects intended for television that were turned into movies. Whether they were made from multiple episodes, or with added footage to pad the run time, these former pilots found new life on the big screen.
1. Ride the High Iron
Image: The Everett Collection
A year before taking on his most famous role, Raymond Burr almost starred on TV as a completely different character. Luckily for Perry Mason fans, his turn as scheming public relations man Ziggy Moline was released as a theatrical film instead of on the small screen. Ride the High Iron also starred Don Taylor as a working-class Korean War veteran and Sally Forrest as the high society socialite he falls in love with. Taylor acted in guest-spots on TV through the 1960s but found his true calling as a director. He directed episodes of The Rifleman, Dr. Kildare, Mannix, and later movies like Damien: Omen II and The Final Countdown.
2. The Man from Galveston
The one-season 1963 drama Temple Houston tried to take advantage of the popularity of both Westerns and court shows by combining the two. It starred Jeffrey Hunter, who played Captain Pike in the original Star Trek pilot “The Cage,” as a lawyer who was as handy with a gun as he was with a law book. Speaking of original pilots with different casts, Temple Houston was changed so much after the first episode was shot that it became unusable. Rather than let the old footage sit in a warehouse, it was edited into a 57-minute film and released to theaters as The Man from Galveston. The movie featured another Star Trek actor, Yeoman Rand herself Grace Lee Whitney, and was directed by Cannon star and Gunsmoke radio voice William Conrad.
3. Agent for H.A.R.M.
In the mid-Sixties, spy shows were the coolest things on TV. The globetrotting adventures in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and others inspired many copycats. One such imitator, complete with its own acronym, was Agent for H.A.R.M. The pilot was not picked up for series but the science fiction elements enabled it to stand on its own as a Cold War B-movie. It starred Peter Mark Richmond as a secret agent working for H.A.R.M or Human Aetiological Relations Machine. Yes, this American agency uses the British spelling of “etiology”— the study of causation. Richmond’s Adam Chance must protect an ex-Soviet scientist who has information about a weaponized fungus that can slowly consume the human body. Talk about harm!
4. Invisible Avenger
This 1958 film, also known as Bourbon Street Shadows, started as an attempt by Republic Pictures to produce a TV show based on the popular radio and pulp magazine crime fighter The Shadow. When the two-part pilot didn’t get picked up, it was edited into a feature film and released in theaters. Richard Derr plays Lamont Cranston, along with his elusive alter-ego The Shadow, who investigates the murder of a New Orleans bandleader with connections to a Caribbean dictator.
5. Kona Coast
After playing Paladin in Have Gun – Will Travel and hosting his own short-lived anthology series, Richard Boone moved to Hawaii. He wasn’t done with Hollywood, however, as he hoped to establish a booming industry in his new tropical home. The 1968 movie Kona Coast was the project he thought would kickstart it all. Filmed as a movie but intended to spawn a TV series, it followed Boone as boat Captain Sam Moran, who vows to bring his daughter’s murderer to justice. The majority of the budget was provided by CBS in hopes it would lead to a successful series but a short theatrical release is all it received.
6. Hell Ship Mutiny
A much lighter film than its name implies, this former TV pilot for a show called Knight of the South Seas follows Captain Jim Knight, his chimpanzee, his parrot and human crew members as they sail the Pacific Ocean. Actor Jon Hall, who grew up in Tahiti, played Knight while John Carradine and horror icon Peter Lorre both played villains in the film. The full movie was cut together from multiple episodes filmed for the series. It was released to theaters in 1957.
7. Chamber of Horrors
This 1966 scary movie was deemed too bloody for the small screen. Originally meant to be a pilot for a show called House of Wax, it was released in theaters and came with its own warning system for queasy viewers— though it was most likely also intended to heighten the intensity. Before any violent scenes, the screen would flash red and a horn would sound. The plot revolved around two wax museum owners and amateur sleuths as they try to catch a murderer who can attach various deadly weapons to his severed arm. The period-piece horror contained cameos from Tony Curtis and Suzy Parker and also featured Wayne Rogers six years before he became Trapper John in M*A*S*H.
8. The Perils of Pauline
Image: The Everett Collection
This wacky adventure film is not hard to envision as a 1960s fantasy series along the lines of I Dream of Jeannie or Batman. That was exactly plan— if it had been picked up. After it was rejected, Universal Pictures released the three finished episodes as a movie. Inspired by the 1914 silent film serials of the same name, The Perils of Pauline followed the title character in her adventures to the Middle East then Africa and eventually outer space. Pamela Austin, most famous for her Dodge car commercials from that time, played Pauline and singer Pat Boone played her star-crossed lover.
9. Belle Sommers
Image: The Everett Collection
Actor and singer Polly Bergen played the title character in this pilot-turned-film from 1962. David Janssen, a year before starring in The Fugitive, played a press agent who helps Ms. Sommers get back to her former glory as a famous nightclub singer. The film also featured a “young” 38-year-old Carroll O’Connor still early in his career and character actor Warren Stevens who was in everything from The Twilight Zone to Bonanza to M*A*S*H.
10. Sabu and the Magic Ring
Sabu, star of 1940s adventure films like The Thief of Bagdad and Arabian Nights, was recruited by George Blair to act in a TV show. Blair, one of the minds behind the successful 1950s series Adventures of Superman, directed Sabu in two different pilots that went unsold. Undeterred, Blair edited the footage into a one-hour movie that was released to theaters as Sabu and the Magic Ring in 1957. The film also starred Daria Massey, who appeared in shows like McHale’s Navy and Wagon Train, and William Marshall as a towering magic genie.