15 fascinating failed TV pilots of the 1970s
Leonard Nimoy as a psychic car racer! Desi Arnaz as a crime-solving doctor! We would watch these shows.
Television is a hit-and-miss business. Well, it's more like a hit-and-miss-miss-miss-miss-miss-miss-miss business. Each year, the networks churn out dozens of hopeful pilots, but only a select few make it to the schedule — of those, ever fewer survive. These days, the viewer is not lucky enough to watch those failed series. The pilots are locked away in a closet and wondered about on blogs.
However, in the 1970s, pilots could be seen regularly as TV movies. Often, the network might take a few dud pilots and bundle them together as a special, as CBS did with "Four Funny Families" and "Bachelors 4," the latter of which tossed in a go-nowhere Tim Conway sitcom with fellow busts from Paul Sand and Rob Reiner.
Maybe it's the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight and nostalgia, but a lot of these seem like lost gems. We would gladly watch a series that recast Spock as a racecar driver with ESP. And how could that Tim Conway comedy not elicit some laughs?
Here are 15 pilots that never made it to series but continue to pique our interest.
1. Madame Sin
Bette Davis: legend. Bette Davis as a mysterious woman of dubious character who lives in a Scottish castle and brainwashes a secret agent (Robert Wagner) to hijack a nuclear submarine: HOW WAS THIS NOT PICKED UP?! For all the spy series of the previous decade, it would have been a cool twist to make the villain the focus, not the Bond-knockoff.
The title might have better described the audience, which was used to seeing Nimoy as the cold and logical Spock. In Baffled, the actor played a swaggering, swinging racecar driver who is granted psychic powers after an accident. Able to foresee murder, he teams with an occult psychiatrist (Susan Hampshire) to solve crimes.
3. Genesis II
Nimoy was not the only Star Trek veteran struggling to get a new show going. Creator Gene Roddenberry tried again and again to launch new sci-fi series to no avail. The first of his 1970s brainstorms was Genesis II, essentially the plot of Futurama done decades earlier. An astronaut is frozen for years and awakens in a dystopian future. Our hero, Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord), finds himself in the middle of a war between militant mutants and pacifists. Oh, did we mention the mutants have two belly buttons? Because they do.
4. The Questor Tapes
Roddenberry had a deal with the network to develop more shows. Throughout the 1970s, Roddenberry would dream up four pilot films, though none of them made it to series. This headier second attempt was his best. The Questor Tapes involved artificial intelligence, benevolent aliens and a buddy relationship, which all seemed right up the alley of Isaac Asimov fans. After this, the creator would return to the post-apocalypse and Dylan Hunt with Planet Earth, and another wonderfully weird creation below…
5. Doctor Domingo
Desi Arnaz attempted a TV comeback by way of a backdoor pilot in Ironside. The former Lucy lover starred as Juan Domingo in the episode "Riddle at 24,000," meant to spawn a series for the crime-solving doctor. Alas, Doctor Domingo did not click. Arnaz made just one more appearance on television. It would have been nice to see him act in his autumnal years as a Quincy type.
6. Evel Knievel
Sam Eliot (sans trademark mustache) starred as the daredevil in this attempted spin-off of the 1971 George Hamilton movie. Alas, this Evel could not make the jump.
7. Kelly's Kids
Mayberry R.F.D. and F Troop man Ken Berry starred in this backdoor pilot from creator Sherwood Schwartz. Berry plays Ken Kelly, who moves in by the Bradys with wife Kathy (Brooke Bundy) and a new adopted son. The premise was a little bit Brady, a little bit Diff'rent Strokes, but the series did not sell. Berry did alright for himself, though, eventually landing another lasting lead role in Mama's Family.
8. Men of the Dragon
ABC tried to quickly capitalize on the success of Enter the Dragon with this martial arts drama. Despite the title, Katie Saylor was arguably the draw here, while Robert Ito provided all the kung fu action. The fights packed a legitimate punch for television at the time, and Elmer Bernstein's brassy theme song swung.
9. Mrs. Sundance
"After Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed dead in a hail of lead she was left still alive with a price of $10,000 on her hide," so the promotional ads proclaimed. Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery made a big leap from nose twitching cutie to Western outlaw.
10. Skin Game
The 1971 film starred James Garner and Lou Gossett, Jr. as grifters who con slavers into buying Gossett only to break him free and pull the trick again down the road. Larry Hagman, no stranger to ten-gallon hats, filled Garner's boots in the TV pilot, which was curiously re-branded as Sidekicks for its lone airing. Something tells us Quentin Tarantino was a fan.
11. Cover Girls
"Let's hit the showers," Cornelia Sharpe says to Jayne Kennedy in this scene from Cover Girls, which gives you a sense of where this Charlie's Angels knockoff had its head. The two portrayed models who worked undercover as secret agents. Spicing up the cast: Don Johnson popped up as a spy posing as a rock star and former Bond George Lazenby was the baddie. C'mon, NBC!
We think that our cineplexes of today are overrun with superheroes, as if it were some modern trend, but comic book characters flooded the small screens of the late 1970s. Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk took DC and Marvel icons to television, and let's not forget Spider-Man and Captain America. Hulk would eventually give us early live-action takes on Daredevil and Thor. What would Iron-Man have been like in that era? No need to wonder. This clunky knight — from the mind of Six Million Dollar Man creator Martin Caiden — chased criminals in stiff red armour.
Gene Roddenberry again, this time with a modern spin on Sherlock Holmes drenched in the occult. Robert Culp starred as a criminologist cursed by a demon, with Gig Young at his side in the campaign against satanic evildoing. The snake-headed Asmodeus looked like something out of He-Man, or the Gorn — in other words, awesomely cheesy. This would have been a cult classic.
14. Dr. Strange
Speaking of the occult and Marvel heroes, Benedict Cumberbatch is not the first actor to wear the cape and mustache. Creator Stan Lee poured his heart into getting this spooky series off the ground, which featured low-budget takes on Stanley Kubrick's stargate sequence… and Jessica Walter (Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development) as the villain! In an alternate dimension, this is a staple of our Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night.
We finish with a pilot thankfully buried in the sands of time (though not entirely, thanks you YouTube), clearly made in the wake of Star Wars, though more in line with its infamous holiday special. The bootleg clones of C-3PO and R2-D2 perhaps gave that away — though here they are horny robot housekeepers with British accents. The premise tossed the laugh-track family comedy of The Brady Bunch into the alien-filled Cantina scene of Star Wars — only it came out of the wash like a Nickelodeon parody. Watch it if you dare.