10 Seventies TV shows you might not realize were based on real life

Julie McCoy, Johnny Fever, and Jim-Bob were based on real people! Kojak, too!

The 1970s served up some super fantastical television series — Battlestar Galactica, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels, etc. But, like the cinema of the era, a lot of TV was rooted in reality. 

More shows than you realize were based on a true story, ripped from headlines, and inspired by real people. Let's dive in.

Images: The Everett Collection

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1. Baa Baa Black Sheep

Now commonly called Black Sheep Squadron, this World War II aerial adventure gave the Hollywood treatment to the missions of Gregory "Pappy" Boyington. Seen here with the actor who portrayed him, Robert Conrad, Pappy flew for the Marines in the South Pacific. His squadron of "misfits and screwballs" — as the opening credits declared them — came off as more invincible and mythological on the small screen.

2. Baretta

The network thought Tony Musante was bluffing. The actor said he only wanted to do one season of his gritty cop series, Toma. Producers figured it was a negotiating tactic. It was not. Musante bailed and the show recast and retooled into the more traditional action hour Baretta. The original Toma had more of a Serpico vibe, based on the career of a real New Jersey detective, Dave Toma, who made cameos throughout the series. Toma splashed violence across the screen and dealt with heavy urban issues. Baretta sanded off the rough edges, renaming the character Tony Baretta and making him a master of disguise with a pet cockatoo.

3. Emergency!

The made-for-TV movie that served as the pilot for this drama went under the unwieldy title The Wedsworth-Townsend Act. Wisely, creator Jack Webb shortened it to the punchy Emergency! — complete with an exclamation point. In 1970, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed The Wedsworth-Townsend Paramedic Act, establishing the first accredited paramedic training program in America. Emergency! popularized and promoted the very concept of EMS — still a novel concept in 1972. Just as he did with police files on Dragnet, Webb asked writers to mine fire stations' logbooks for true incidents to dramatize on television.

4. Kojak

Like Emergency!, Kojak premiered under a clunky title — The Marcus-Nelson Murders. The TV movie was based on the grisly Wylie-Hoffert murders, a.k.a. the Career Girls Murders, the case that lead to the establishment of Miranda Rights in the Supreme Court. Telly Savalas's character, Theo Kojak, was a mishmash of real detectives who worked the Wylie-Hoffert murder case. 

5. The Love Boat

Yes, The Love Boat was inspired by a true story. The romantic comedy was adapted from the memoirs of Jeraldine Saunders, a book she called The Love Boats, plural, chronicling her time as "the first full-time female cruise director." Thus, Julie McCoy (Lauren Tewes) was based on Saunders. Saunders later became an astrologer.

6. M*A*S*H

Obviously, the Korean War happened. No secret there. And you know M*A*S*H was first an acclaimed movie, directed by Robert Altman. The dramedy franchise was based on the autobiographical novel of H. Richard Hornberger, who wrote under the alias Richard Hooker. Hornberger served in Korea with the 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. He even called his tent "The Swamp." Oh, and like Hawkeye, he went to Maine after the war. 

7. Project U.F.O.

Believe it or not, the UFO show was based on reality. Another creation of Jack Webb (see Emergency! above), Project U.F.O. again utilized the producer's penchant for "ripped from the case files" tales, in this instance the United States Air Force study of unidentified flying objects labeled "Project Blue Book." As in reality, many of the investigations ended up having mundane explanations — but some were left ambiguously in the realm of the eerie.

8. The Waltons

Creator Earl Hamner Jr. transformed his youth in Schuyler in Nelson County, Virginia, into the loves and lives of the Walton clan on Walton's Mountain. Hamner documented his upbringing in the books Spencer's Mountain (1961) and The Homecoming: A Novel About Spencer's Mountain (1970), stories that were first adapted into a film with Henry Fonda, Spencer's Mountain (1963).

9. Welcome Back, Kotter

Barbarino, Freddie, Epstein, and Horshack existed in real life. They were classmates of Gabe Kaplan at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, the same school shown in the opening credits of his sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter. Kaplan turned his school days into a comedy routine (and eventual album) he called "Holes and Mellow Rolls." Kaplan was a remedial student himself, which is how he met kids like Ray Barbarino, Freddie "Furdy" Peyton, and Epstein "The Animal." The names were slightly changed for TV. Oh, and the insult, "Up your hole with a Mello roll!" was softened to the catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose!"

10. WKRP in Cincinatti

Sitcom creator Hugh Wilson based most WKRP employees on real radio pros. Andy Travis was based on Mikel "Captain Mikey" Herrington, a pioneer of the album-rock radio format at San Jose's KOME and Los Angeles' KMET. (He was also the voice of Sears.) Atlanta disc jockey "Skinny" Bobby Harper inspired Dr. Johnny Fever (as did Howard Hesseman's real-life experience as a DJ). Harper worked at WQXI with Bill Dial, a writer for WKRP in Cincinnati. The station owners, the Carlsons, were based on WQXI's manager Jerry Blum.

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JDnHuntsvilleAL 21 months ago
REALLY? NO mention of "Little House on the Prairie"?
WilliamJorns 26 months ago
I heard somewhere that many urban cops commented that the stories in episodes of "Barney Miller" reminded them of stuff that actually happened in their precinct houses. Could that series also have been based on real life?
Art 26 months ago
Great read, I thought commander Mcgarett and HAWAII FIVE O was also based on a real life policeman? So happy metv plus is available, thnx.
JDnHuntsvilleAL Art 21 months ago
Began in the Sixties, not the Seventies.
Pegs 26 months ago
One thing I've wondered about since The Waltons, since I'd already seen Spencer's Mountain: In the movie, the character was called "Clay Boy". In the TV show, he was "John Boy". In Real Life, was the actual person called "Earl Boy"? Just wondering. :-)
Zip 26 months ago
The only ones I didn't know were based on true stories were numbers 2 through 5. Never thought The Love Boat would have been based on a true story but there you go.

Black Sheep Squadron was/is one of my all time favorite war series. And it made me fall in love with the Corsair.
LoveMETV22 26 months ago
Happy 83rd Birthday 🎂, to Mike Farrell ( B.J. Hunnicutt) on M*A*S*H.
Happy 66th Birthday 🎂, to Jon Walmsley (Jason) on the Waltons.
ELEANOR 26 months ago
At the dinner table, Sherwood Schwartz would listen to the daily trials and tribulations of his children and then use them in the Brady Bunch scripts.
MichaelSkaggs 26 months ago
"Welcome Back, Kotter". I hated the theme song then. I still hate it today.
Zip MichaelSkaggs 26 months ago
I gotta agree with that. Like a lot of things in the 70's, it was pretty mundane.
madmark1 26 months ago
How about adding Nightcourt to the lineup that was a great show.
madmark1 madmark1 26 months ago
I did fail to mention that Nightcourt was also based on truth
George57 26 months ago
If you can't do the time, don't do the crime. I liked Baretta in the same way as Starsky and Hutch. I also like Mannix, Canon, Barbaby Jones, MacMillan and Wife, Columbo, MCloud, Kojak and many others. I was a fan of the mystery/detective shows. I know there were so many, although in my older years I am a bit foggy on the past. Oh yes and the show Hart to Hart. Well, goodnight folks.
George57 George57 26 months ago
Oops, that Barnaby Jones.
Deleted 26 months ago
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George57 26 months ago
Good one, touche.
Deleted 26 months ago
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George57 26 months ago
What the heck?
Douglas 26 months ago
I reported GladysStone!
George57 26 months ago
I forgot what the comment was, I guess it was inappropriate?
UGA2021 26 months ago
Bring back all of these and get rid of the westerns we have seen for the past 20 years !!
MichaelSkaggs UGA2021 26 months ago
Get rid of the westerns? I'll lead the boycott!
Rob MichaelSkaggs 26 months ago
I agree eight hours a day of westerns is way too much!
LoveMETV22 26 months ago
Family Ties would be a nice addition to MeTV's program list.
FLETCH 26 months ago
Bring back Baretta
LoveMETV22 FLETCH 26 months ago
And his famous Cockatoo's. Think their names were Fred, Lala, Weird Harold and Mr White.
They were trained by a gentleman named Ray Berwick.
MichaelFields 26 months ago
When I was young I lived on a Farm in a small house, to say we were dirt poor would mean we would have had to save up to be that, but my mother (Who grew up pretty much in the same small farm house with 6 other brothers and sisters in the 2 bedroom house) said that when she watched the Waltons, it was just like her up bringing so she loved that show so much
JeffBaker 26 months ago
One of our (former) radio hosts here in Wichita said he used to work for Jerry Blum, and described him as a decent guy and "very unlike Arthur Carlson."
greyhound 26 months ago
The t. v. show "Lou Grant", starring Ed Asner, Robert Walden, Linda Kelsey, etc. was based on real life news stories. Ed Asner's character of Lou Grant, was previously used in the fictional Mary Tyler Moore show.
lgm 26 months ago
You forgot "Eight is Enough", which was based on the book of the same name and written by Thomas Braden about his life as the father of eight children.
CouchPotato19 lgm 26 months ago
Hmmm. My parents had 9 so I guess they should've written a boring book to get rich.
nerakr 26 months ago
Bring back Emergency!
Delmo nerakr 26 months ago
Emergency is, as of this writing, currently airing on COZI TV.
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