Everyone has an opinion on what makes a great television watching experience. I do too, but I’m not here to try to enforce my personal views on you. The following is a recap of ten television series from the past that will serve, if nothing else, as a great sampling of TV’s history from the 1950s to the 1980s.
There’s something for just about everybody here, from cartoons to monsters, detectives to comedy, and even an obscure game show that lasted over four years but few of you will remember. Some of these shows, quite frankly, had little going for them and didn’t even last a full season, but hidden among the group is a show none of the networks wanted that wound up embarrassing them all when it lasted four years in original syndication and is still seen on some cable channels today.
Some of the premises were downright weird. Can you imagine a father half the age of his son? How about a family member reincarnated as an automobile? Come join us for a walk through the corridors of television history and recall the first series filmed in Hawaii, a war with aliens, and a couple of guys named after their car.
My Mother the Car. NBC ran this show from September 14, 1965 to April 5, 1966 and probably wished they hadn’t. Back in those days, series were ordered by the full season, so a total of 30 shows were produced. Show star Jerry Van Dyke also made a mistake. In order to do this clunker, he turned down the role that eventually went to Bob Denver on “Gilligan’s Island”. Van Dyke was a lawyer who discovers his mother has been reincarnated as a 1928 Porter automobile. Of course, he’s the only one who knows this. Ann Sothern dubbed in Mom’s voice and Avery Schreiber played Captain Manzini, a ruthless collector of antiques who wants the car.
V: The Series. Launched on NBC on October 26, 1984 after the huge success of the original two “V” miniseries, its 19 episodes were so expensive to film that a lot of stock footage from the miniseries was used in order to cut costs of production. Jane Badler was chief alien officer Diana, who was in constant battle with co-stars Michael Ironside and Marc Singer. Robert Englund was Willie, an alien sympathetic to the human cause of freedom from the Nazi-like reptilian invaders from space who originally came to Earth to gather people as food.
The Second Hundred Years. Premiered on ABC on September 6, 1967 and ran one 26 episode season until September 19, 1968. Monte Markham portrayed Luke Carpenter, a prospector in Alaska who was buried by an avalanche in 1900 and thawed out 67 years later. Luke went to live with his son Edwin, now in his late 60s. Because of his extended stay in suspended animation, Luke still looked like he was 33 and an exact duplicate of his own grandson. Most of the humor came from trying to keep the community at large from finding out the truth.
Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles. CBS was the home of this rather creative cartoon show that began on September 10, 1966 at the height of the super hero craze. Frankenstein Jr. was a huge robot built by young Buzz Conroy and voiced by Ted Cassidy (Lurch on “Addams Family”) that the boy scientist used to fight crime. The Impossibles were a trio of rock musicians who, when duty called and crime rose its ugly head, turned into super heroes Coil Man, whose arms and legs were springs; Multi Man, with the ability to make duplicates of himself; and Fluid Man, who could turn himself into what amounted to an instant waterfall. Voice talent also included Don Messick (the voice of Dr. Quest and Bandit on “Jonny Quest”) and Paul Frees.
Bearcats! First aired on September 16, 1971, this show starred Rod Taylor as Hank Brackett and Dennis Cole as Johnny Reach, two mercenaries who scoured the American southwest just before World War I looking for adventure and excitement. They traveled around in their car, a Stutz Bearcat (thence the show’s name), taking on dangerous jobs for which they accepted as payment a blank check whose amount they would fill in themselves after finishing their assignment depending on the difficulty of the work involved. This was one of the first shows on TV that suffered from the now popular early cancellation because of low ratings after thirteen episodes.
Barbary Coast. ABC thought they had a winner on their hands because the TV movie they made with this same title got decent ratings, so they saddled up and began its run on September 8, 1975. William Shatner, still relatively fresh off his “Star Trek” assignment, was Jeff Cable, a government agent in late 1800s San Francisco. Doug McClure played Cash Conover, a casino owner and friend of Cable who set up the G-man in a secret suite above the casino. Each week they enjoyed adventures packed with gadgets, fights, and pretty women. Unfortunately, this was nothing but a poor man’s “Wild Wild West”, and it rode off into the sunset after 14 shows.
Werewolf. What do you do if you’re the new kid on the TV block and have to fight the three established networks for viewers? This is exactly the question that the newly launched Fox Network was asking itself in 1987, and the answer appeared to be giving the audience something unlike any other program on TV. On July 11 of that year they began airing this story of a young man attacked and bitten by a werewolf who, in order to lift the curse from himself, must find and kill the creature that bit him. The special effects by Rick Baker (“An American Werewolf In London”) were top-notch, but this was the era when Fox only had shows three nights a week, and when a new project called “Married With Children” came up, the “Werewolf” time slot was sacrificed for the eventually long-running comedy.
The Who, What, Or Where Game. This was an overall dull yet highly informative quiz show that ran on NBC from December 29, 1969 to January 4, 1974 in the weekday half past noon slot right after “Jeopardy!”. WWW3, as it was colloquially known, was hosted by Art James, who wasn’t exactly the epitome of excitement. Three contestants were staked to $125 each then were given categories with three questions about a person, an event, or place related to the category. The players placed bets on the questions, which had odds enabling them to increase their winnings based on the difficulty of the answer. If two or more players picked the same “W” with the same amount bet, an auction for the question would ensue. A home version of this game was quite popular for a couple of years.
Sea Hunt. Lloyd Bridges was Mike Nelson, an underwater adventurer, in this series that began on January 4, 1958 and eventually was an embarrassment to all three networks. Producer Ivan Tors offered the show to everyone, but ABC, NBC, and CBS all turned it down, saying the prospect of the show had no merit and wouldn’t last more than one season. Tors was unfazed by this and offered the show for syndication, one of the earliest programs to go that route. The independent stations that got this show were the beneficiaries of a genuine hit that regularly beat out the big networks and went on to field 155 shows over four years. This program centered on Nelson’s work-for-hire adventures under the sea and not only popularized scuba diving in America, it helped give valuable air time to such young new actors such as Robert Conrad, Larry Hagman, Leonard Nimoy, and Jack Nicholson.
Hawaiian Eye. The title referred to a private investigation agency on the newly-welcomed 50th state of the union. It was the first series filmed on location there, beginning on October 7, 1959 and ending its run on April 2, 1963 on the ABC network. After a good showing on “Sea Hunt”, Robert Conrad was given his first starring role as Tom Lopaka, who with Tracy Steele (Anthony Eisley) ran the detective agency. Also along for the ride were Connie Stevens as a local lounge singer, Grant Williams, and even Troy Donahue during the show’s last season. Poncie Ponce was a zany taxi driver whose family seemed to make up half the island’s population. He always wore a straw hat and wild looking shirts that are now synonymous with the island nation.
I grew up with these shows, which in some cases was unfortunate, and I had a great time either watching them or making fun of them, as the case may be. A few of them lived on in syndication for decades after their initial runs, then were relegated to minor cable networks like TV Land and Goodlife TV. Perhaps in the future a new outbreak of nostalgia fever will sweep the land and we may be able to enjoy at least a few of them again, digitally remastered with new soundtracks, like was recently done with the original “Star Trek”.