This show should have been a hit: The Magician
Before he Hulked out, Bill Bixby was a crime-solving illusionist with an awesome Corvette.
A dull sedan chases a white 1973 Corvette through an intersection. The Stingray spins out in the street. Trumpets blare. Smoke rises from the tires as the 'Vette sits on the pavement like a shark in a tank. The window rolls down. Bill Bixby coolly reclines in the driver's seat underneath his leather jacket and amber shades. Cue the spy guitar music.
Now that is an awesome opening to an hour of television. When it premiered in the fall of 1973, The Magician was a peanut butter & jelly combination of youthful fantasy, Harry Houdini meets James Bond. Here was a master escape artist who drove a growling sports car and lived inside a jumbo jet. ("It's like any other mobile home, only faster.") The playboy magician, Anthony Blake, assisted those in need while trotting the globe. The title character was played by rising star Bixby, who was hot off The Courtship of Eddie's Father and the earlier hit My Favorite Martian.
It seemed like an easy formula for success. Alas, it was not. And the reason might have had a little to do with gasoline, football and a writer's strike.
Beyond it's handsome leading man, The Magician had a solid pedigree for action television. Bruce Lansbury was its creator, having produced dozens of episodes of The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible. Joseph Stefano wrote the pilot, having previous scripted Psycho and a bunch of The Outer Limits. Yet this talent led to some early turmoil. The network wanted a zippy, sexy adventure, while Stefano hoped for something a little darker and macabre. The two approaches came together most obviously in the car, that sleek Corvette, with a vanity plate that read "SPIRIT." As TV Guide wrote in its 1973 Fall Preview:
One way to get around current constraints on TV violence is to invent a hero who is capable of triumphing over the forces of evil without slugging or shooting anybody.One way to get around current constraints on TV violence is to invent a hero who is capable of triumphing over the forces of evil without slugging or shooting anybody.
The time slot did not help the The Magician's chances. The Monday primetime adventure was up against two shows in the top 25 — Gunsmoke and The Rookies, the latter of which enjoyed the success that came with leading into Monday Night Football. But it was perhaps economics that truly sawed The Magician's hopes in half.
For starters, the Writer's Strike of March 1973, which looked to raise the going rate for an hour of television from $4,500 to $12,000, marred the quality of the scripts. That Hollywood walk-out hit just as the pilot was airing. Secondly, the decade's long and ugly oil crisis rudely arrived in October 1973, just as The Magician was premiering. Weeks into the show's one and only season, the producers realized it was perhaps gaudy to have a character who cruised around in gas-guzzling sports cars and jet airliners. So Blake was moved from his mobile home in the sky to a more humble abode in The Magic Castle in Hollywood.
If Stefano had been able to see his grittier vision to fruition, if the oil crisis had not grounded Blake's globetrotting lifestyle… who knows what might have become of The Magician? Still, the show did have its influence. Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files was clearly watching. Years later, on his paranormal FBI series, a young Mulder is shown watching The Magician when his sister Samantha is abducted by aliens.
Bixby went on to become another wandering do-gooder, The Incredible Hulk. The actor had trained vigorously for his role as the Magician, and those illusionist skills did not go to waste. One episode reunited Bixby with his My Favorite Martian costar Ray Walston. Its name? "My Favorite Magician," of course.