Friday, November 8, 2019

When NBC Turned Buck Rogers Into 'Burt Reynolds in Outer Space' - Ultimate Classic Rock

When NBC Turned Buck Rogers Into 'Burt Reynolds in Outer Space' - Ultimate Classic Rock


When NBC Turned Buck Rogers Into 'Burt Reynolds in Outer Space' - Ultimate Classic Rock

Posted: 20 Sep 2019 12:00 AM PDT

Following the success of Star Wars in 1977, production studios saw science-fiction as a potential goldmine. So it was inevitable that NBC brought Buck Rogers in the 25th Century to TV screens in the fall of 1979.

The network's hotshot executive at the time was Fred Silverman, referred to by Time as "the man with the golden gut" because of his visionary work. During his career, Silverman was responsible for bringing some of the most groundbreaking and renowned programming not only to NBC (Diff'rent StrokesThe Facts of LifeGimme a Break!), but also to ABC (Charlie's AngelsThree's CompanyThe Love BoatSoapFantasy Island) and CBS (All in the FamilyThe Mary Tyler Moore ShowM*A*S*H, Rhoda).

Silverman and his trusty gut arrived at NBC in 1978 as the network's new president and CEO. As 1979's fall season drew near, the TV vet made it clear the network was going to make some drastic changes to its programming.

After receiving a number of complaints from viewers and advertisers about the network's adult-focused programming, Silverman felt it was "very obvious" that the network needed to tone down its content. The executive worked quickly to modify the network's schedule to ensure any shows in the lineup or in development didn't focus on sex. Ultimately, Silverman believed a shift toward programs "of value" would benefit the network, so storylines deemed "too adult" had to be cut.

Another one of NBC's goals in the late '70s was to bring big-budget sci-fi to TV. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the latest project from television writing giant Glen A. Larsen, was a part of that vision. The production was not without risk, considering ABC had canceled another Larsen sci-fi show, Battlestar Galactica, a year earlier.

NBC granted Larsen an opportunity to craft another expensive show. The writer was familiar with Buck Rogers from that character's days in a comic strip and envisioned the hero as an adventurer with a sly sense of humor. "I saw Buck as Burt Reynolds in outer space," Larsen explained to Epic Illustrated in 1980. Bruce Lansbury, whose TV credits included Mission: Impossible and Wonder Woman, later signed on as Buck Roger's producer.

To attract a female demographic, Lansbury cast a male lead who could draw women to the show. "He's going to be a major star," Lansbury said about 36-year-old Gil Gerard, who landed the role. "He just hasn't had the right vehicle so far, and Buck Rogers fits him like a glove. He's James Garner, Burt Reynolds, all those people -- given the chance."

Gerard previously made his living as an industrial chemist in Arkansas. He found the work dull, so dreams of an acting career took him to New York. But success didn't come quickly. Gerard took acting classes during the day and worked a 12-hour shift as a cab driver at night during his early days in New York City. Then, very much in fairy-tale fashion, one of Gerard's passengers turned out to have connections in the entertainment world.

This led to Gerard's first paid acting job, as an extra on the set of the film Love Story, though his scene was cut out of the movie. Hundreds of appearances in commercials and a soap opera later, the actor scored the lead role in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He reportedly turned the part down three times because he didn't want to portray Buck Rogers as a "cartoon character." But after reading the script, Gerard saw the character had a strong sense of humanity, as well as a good sense of humor.

Actress Erin Gray, who had appeared in Evening at Byzantium, a miniseries produced by Larsen, was cast to co-star as Col. Wilma Deering. Gray spent 12 hours on the set during her last day of filming Evening at Byzantium right before she headed out to an audition for Buck Rogers, and recalled she was in a "sullen mood" before the tryout. She had no idea what the show was about or any insight into her character. Gray later credited her mood for helping to create a distinctive dynamic between herself and Gerard -- precisely the kind of chemistry Lansbury was looking for.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was originally conceptualized as a TV movie, but Universal Studios opted to release the feature-length pilot in theaters in March 1979. The strategy worked: The film was not only a box-office success, it also helped build anticipation for the series' release six months later. The first TV episode was presented as a two-part cliffhanger, even though it was really just an edited cut of the movie.

Watch a 'Buck Rogers' TV Spot From 1979

The show's popularity exploded, and the demand for the cast's presence at sci-fi conventions kept them busy signing thousands of autographs a day for the ever-growing fan base.

Despite Silverman's concerns regarding sexuality, Buck Rogers provided plenty of onscreen eye candy. The opening title credits for the movie were done in the style of legendary title designer Maurice Binder, best known for his work on more than a dozen James Bond films. And much like the 007 flicks, Buck Rogers' title sequence was very sexy -- and something NBC executive had hoped to avoid. A generic version of the title sequence, toning down the suggestiveness of the original opening, was later adopted.

Elsewhere, actress Pamela Hensley (who played the evil Princess Ardala) appeared seemingly nude while in a steaming bathtub or in various eye-popping ensembles. Gerard and Gray's uniforms were also notably skintight. The daring and formfitting outfits were designed by Jean-Pierre Dorleac, whose work on Larsen's previous sci-fi show, Battlestar Galactica, won him an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Series.

Still, there was more to the show than sex appeal. Gray's portrayal of the tough Col. Deering inspired women, which the actress was reportedly proud of, even though she admittedly hadn't planned it that way. "I don't feel responsible in one way, because I didn't go out there and lead the way or something — it just happened," she said. "But I'm very grateful for it. It's a certain legacy that I have that I'm honored to have been part of."

Ratings for Buck Rogers were high, but internally there was a fair amount of strife on-set because of constant episode rewrites requested by both NBC and Larson. Gerard had developed a poor impression of the program based on the scripts he read before the start of season one. The actor felt the show was trying to be a buddy-cop action series like Starsky and Hutch, but set in outer space, or even an intergalactic riff on Charlies Angels. The cast also felt the rewrites were pushing the show in a more comedic direction, while they kept hoping for a more serious science-fiction storyline. Gerard was especially put off by how his character was perceived; according to him, all Buck did "was go out and raise hell with some pretty girl."

The series' star was also miffed at the way NBC handled the show's scheduling. "We were tied with Laverne & Shirley and Benson," Gerard recalled of Buck Roger's strong early ratings. "Laverne & Shirley was the overall No. 1 show for the entire season the year before. Benson was the hot new comedy. Well, we were tied with them after four weeks on the air. And then they took us off the air to build up the special effects and stuff."

It's a decision the actor believes stunted the show's audience. "At the same time some of the other networks were canceling shows," he said. "So a lot of people who were watching thought, of course, it's gone, so it must be cancelled. ... It never really recovered from that."

By the time Buck Rogers' second season aired, both fans and the cast were irked by the show's shift to be more in line with Star Trek. Gerard's complaints and script rewrites prompted the network to threaten legal action.

"I hated that season," Gerard said, summing up his feelings about the second season. "It was such a ripoff of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. I was thinking, 'Why are we doing this?' I always wanted Buck to stay on Earth, but we got a new executive producer who had no respect for the audience and the show."

Among the behind-the-scenes discourse, mounting tension and disagreements on creative direction, it became clear the series' days were numbered. After two seasons and 37 episodes, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century received a pink slip from NBC. Its last episode aired on April 16, 1981. 

30 Years Ago: 'Weekend at Bernie's' Becomes a Cult Hit - Ultimate Classic Rock

Posted: 05 Jul 2019 12:00 AM PDT

Screenwriter Robert Klane was on a hot streak in 1989. After crafting stories for several television shows, most notably M*A*S*H, the writer had successfully transitioned to films.

National Lampoon's European Vacation from 1985 gave him his first big screen hit, but it was a lesser-known movie, The Man With One Red Shoe, that connected Klane with producer Victor Drai. "I asked [Klane], 'Do you have any other ideas?'" Drai recalled in a conversation with MEL magazine. "'He said, 'Yes, I have an idea, but nobody would ever buy it. It's about two kids who drag a dead guy around Fire Island.'"

The producer's interest was piqued. He initially pitched the idea to his partners at MGM, but was rebuffed. "If somebody pitched you an idea about two kids with a dead guy, you'd think they're crazy," Drai later admitted.

Still, he refused to let the quirky idea go. Instead, he reached out to a friend, director Ted Kotcheff, who had helmed such hits as Fun With Dick and Jane and Rambo: First Blood. "I loved [the idea] because it was so extreme," Kotcheff wrote in his 2017 autobiography Directors Cut: My Life in Film. "I thought it was not only hilarious, but also dark and full of comedic and satirical possibilities."

With Kotcheff agreeing to direct, Drai was able to secure the necessary financing for a $15 million budget. The strange corpse comedy was green-lit. Its initial title was Hot and Cold, but the world would eventually know the film as Weekend at Bernie's.

Watch 'Weekend at Bernie's' Trailer

The movie's plot centered on Larry Wilson and Richard Parker, two twentysomething friends working low-level jobs at a New York City insurance company. High jinks ensue when their millionaire boss, Bernie Lomax, invites the guys to his beach house. When the duo finds the executive dead, they go to extreme lengths to convince everyone else he is still alive.

Jonathan Silverman and Jon Cryer were originally selected as the buddy duo. But, in a real-life plot twist, Andrew McCarthy, who had starred alongside Cryer in Pretty in Pink, ended up snagging the Weekend at Bernie's role from his former costar. "They had us screen-test for both roles, so all we knew was that one of us would be playing [Richard] and the other would be playing [Larry]," Silverman recalled in a conversation with Entertainment Weekly, noting that Cryer was originally his partner. "I'm not sure what happened. Then it became me and Andrew."

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

More difficult to cast was the role of boss-turned-dead-body Bernie. Terry Kiser, a veteran character actor, was invited to try out for the part  but initially had to pass on the audition while he recovered from a motorcycle accident. A month passed and the film still hadn't found its Bernie. Producers again contacted Kiser, who had recuperated and was now ready to come in.

The actor normally shaved before his auditions, but made distinctive grooming choice in this instance. "I'm just going to leave this mustache on," Kiser recalled saying to himself. "I knew that these clean-faced young kids  —  with a guy with a mustache in a suit  —  was right. It just felt right at the time."

The actor's instinct proved correct.

"It was just his face  —  it was perfect," Drai noted. "It was very important for us that Bernie have sunglasses on [when he's dead] because we didn't want to see the eyes moving. I had a pair of glasses I was wearing, and I said, 'Please wear these.' As soon as he put the glasses on his face, we knew he was Bernie."

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Kiser accepted the part, though he was hardly enthused about the script. "Well, this is a one-trick pony," the actor remembered thinking when he first read the screenplay.

While some of the film's early scenes were shot in New York, the majority of principal photography took place on the sun-kissed coast of Wilmington, N.C. While watching the playback of one scene, Kiser spotted a problem with his portrayal of dead Bernie: "I'm looking at the thing and I said, 'No, it's not funny. He's just dead  —  it's not funny-dead.'"

This realization concerned the actor because the majority of the film's comedy was predicated on the audience's ability to laugh at a corpse. If viewers couldn't chuckle at the cadaver getting pulled behind a boat, washing up on shore or getting turned into a makeshift marionette, the movie would surely flop. Kiser had to find "funny-dead."

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Late that night while ruminating on his character, Kiser developed what he calls "the Bernie smirk." "I was looking in the mirror," the actor recalled. "I had to find something on my face that I could hold [in a funny way]. I experimented —  I could fall right into [that smirk] just by going, 'Mmm, hmmm, mmm,' and that smirk would come."

Kiser tested his new "Bernie smirk" on set the next day. When the crew started cracking up, he knew he'd made the right choice. Even his co-stars recognized the subtle genius of this move. "Terry Kiser did something so clever," Silverman recalled in a conversation with Entertainment Weekly. "He died with a smirk on his face, which let the audience love him."

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Confident that their star corpse was now funny, the cast and crew began improvising unique situations for Bernie. "A fair amount of it was made up," McCarthy remarked while appearing on the Build Series YouTube channel. "There was nothing that was over the top," the actor noted while pointing out one scene when Bernie was thrown off a balcony and another when he had a toupee stapled to his head. The physical comedy led to laughs, but also pain. Kiser broke several ribs while filming Weekend at Bernie's.

Still, arguably the biggest test of taste was a scene in which a woman makes love to Bernie's body, thinking the business executive is still alive. "Who the fuck is going to find this funny?" Silverman asked himself after reading the necrophilic scene. "But people did. And they found it endearing."

Watch a Scene From 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Test audiences responded so positively to early screenings of the movie that its distributor, 20th Century Fox, decided to move Weekend at Bernie's release date to July 5, 1989. Doing so put the film against one of the summer's most anticipated blockbusters, Lethal Weapon 2. The studio believed the comedy would provide a laugh-filled second option for those not interested in the Mel Gibson action sequel.

"I wanted to kill them," Drai admitted later, still upset about Fox's decision to move the release date. "We think we have a $100 million movie  —  we're sure we have a big hit. Well, those dumbbells at Fox decide, 'Okay, we're going to counter-program.'"

Weekend at Bernie's placed eighth at the box office its opening weekend, earning $4.5 million. Gene Siskel called the film "a preposterous, unfunny comedy," while his At the Movies partner Roger Ebert said the movie's concept "was a bad idea and it didn't work." Not every critic was quite as harsh. The Hollywood Reporter called Weekend at Bernie's a "good old, knock-down slapstick with just the right dose of cruelty thrown in."

Watch Siskel & Ebert Review 'Weekend at Bernie's'

Positive word of mouth helped the film maintain solid returns the next few weeks at the box office. The movie would eventually haul in more than $30 million domestically, more than doubling its budget.

If the Weekend at Bernie's story ended there, it would still be an impressive tale. But the movie about two guys and their dead boss has somehow achieved a pop-culture longevity that even those involved in its creation couldn't have dreamed of.

Family Guy, Friends and How I Met Your Mother are just some of the TV shows to dedicate plots and jokes to Weekend at Bernie's. The film's sequel, though a commercial disappointment, spawned a viral dance craze. Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders capitalized on the name, creating fundraisers dubbed "Weekend at Bernie's."

"That movie was completely stupid and fantastic," McCarthy confessed during a 2017 interview with the AV Club. "It's the stupidest movie. I love it."

Silverman echoed similar thoughts when interviewed by Larry King. "I'm thrilled and shocked and confused that this little movie that we made years ago has turned into a cult [hit]," he said. "When we made it, I was lucky just to have the job. I had no idea people would find it amusing. It's about a guy who dies on page 20 and we drag him around the Hamptons for the rest of the weekend. But it made people laugh."

40 Years Ago: 'Nosferatu' Remake Defines the Vampire Film - Ultimate Classic Rock

Posted: 07 Oct 2019 12:00 AM PDT

Werner Herzog's status as a pop culture figure sometimes threatens to overshadow his accomplishments as a filmmaker of truly magnificent abilities. If a reminder of this is needed, look no further than his elegiac Nosferatu, the Vampyre, which opened in U.S. theaters in October 1979.

The film is a close remake of F.W..Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, itself an unauthorized retelling of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, and one of the greatest achievements of the silent movie age. Herzog's film opens in the German town of Wismar, with the unfortunate Lucy Harker (played by Isabelle Adjani) waking from a dream of a bat flying through the night. The dream seems to be a premonition, or perhaps a sign of some internal drive of which she's barely conscious. Later that day, her husband, Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), is notified by his boss, Renfield (Roland Topor), that he's being sent to Transylvania to meet with one Count Dracula, who's interested in purchasing a decaying mansion in Wismar.

Jonathan embarks on an arduous four-week journey that takes him deep into the Carpathian Mountains. At the final village before he enters Dracula's domain, he's warned against continuing but presses on, climbing Borgo Pass (which featured in Stoker's novel); at its summit he encounters a mysterious black carriage that takes him the rest of the way to the Count's castle.

The exterior shots here allow Herzog to create a powerful feeling of a journey into another world lurking just beyond this one, but it's when Harker reaches the castle that the film moves into its full realization, thanks to Klaus Kinski, a Polish actor of unrivaled intensity and commitment whose portrayal of Dracula is one for the ages.

Kinski's Dracula is melancholic, oppressed by the unvarying days of his immortality. He's also the purveyor of an evil that resembles a force of nature. Where he goes, rats and plague follow. When he sees a picture of Lucy that Jonathan carries in a locket, he becomes obsessed with her. After feeding on Jonathan for several nights, Dracula loads a number of black coffins onto a ship and departs. In his weakened state Jonathan knows Lucy is in danger, but can only slowly chase after the vampire to try to save her.

By the time the ship carrying Dracula arrives in Wismar, the crew has all vanished, the dead captain has lashed himself to the wheel and the ship is infested with rats. Soon the rats and the plague infest Wismar, and the population begins to die off.

Lucy realizes this, and when Jonathan arrives back in the city and doesn't recognize her because he's turning into a vampire himself, she sets out to trap Dracula. She lures him to her bedroom and gives herself willingly to him, distracting him long enough that he doesn't notice the arrival of the dawn. She gives her life to defeat him; the film's final ironic twist is that she cannot save Jonathan in the process. He is now fully a vampire and rides off at the end to begin his own reign of terror.

Some film historians have called Nosferatu the Vampyre Herzog's meditation on the infestation of Germany by the Nazis. This is a suggestive idea but not quite right. Like so much of Herzog's work it's about larger things than just the political, and the whole is infused with the feeling of the human struggle against the larger forces of the universe. Here, those include time itself, as well as the torments of loneliness and yearning.

Watch 'Nosferatu the Vampyre' Trailer

He achieves this through his singular, tactile approach to filmmaking, combining hand-held camera work with a total devotion to finding images that convey the sublime and the grandiose. In this quest, Kinski is the perfect partner. Nosferatu is the third of the five films the two made together, including Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), two of the greatest portrayals of mad obsession in the history of cinema.

Kinksi was a prolific actor, but no director channeled his energies as well as Herzog. His Dracula is based on the famous vampire played by Max Schreck in the original Nosferatu, and includes many moments in which Kinski mimics the earlier actor's movements and postures with uncanny accuracy. At the same time, Kinski's Dracula is alive with insatiable desire and a haunting self-awareness in a way that few screen vampires have ever been.

Like Herzog himself, Kinski was willing to go to any length to achieve what he thought was necessary for his career; also like Herzog, his reputation for erratic behavior can obscure the fact of his immense talent. (For an example of his mania, see his chaotic performance of a one-man show he called Jesus Christ Savior in 1971.) But when he needed to, he could be subtle and exacting in his work. His death scene in Nosferatu is a perfect example of this: When dawn breaks, he collapses in a sudden spasm devoid of histrionics but with such apparent external force that it seems the life has been simply plucked out of him.

All of this contributes to a fascinating and beautiful film, about which Roger Ebert once wrote that if vampires "were real, here is how they must look."

Despite his critical acclaim, Herzog's popular reputation as a filmmaker is due for a re-evaluation. His The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) is one of the great humanist achievements of the '70s, and throughout his career he has done as much as anyone to elevate the documentary form into a meditation rather than simply an examination. For someone wondering what all the fuss is about, Nosferatu, the Vampyre is a great place to start.

35 Years Ago: 'Happy Days' Says Goodbye After 11 Seasons - Ultimate Classic Rock

Posted: 08 May 2019 12:00 AM PDT

UCR: Movies and Culture

Some thought Happy Days had literally jumped the shark in 1977, but the once hugely popular TV show didn't have its official curtain call until May 8, 1984. That followed a slow decline marked by the departure of beloved characters and some questionable storylines.

Set in the mid-'50s, the period sitcom debuted in January 1974 and was nearly cancelled as it endured a brief struggle to define the cast and then find an audience. Ultimately, Happy Days became a monster hit for ABC, spawning multiple spin-offs. It was ranked in the Top 5 in the Nielsen ratings for three straight years, peaking at No. 1 for the 1976-77 season.

Viewers began to turn away as the '80s dawned, however, and Happy Days dropped out of the Top 20 in 1982-83. Firmly resting on the chopping block, the program plummeted to No. 63 the following year, meaning there would never be a Season 12. Some of the cultural changes of the new decade didn't quite align with the squeaky-clean era Happy Days represented, and the show had moved away from the foundation on which its success was built.

Long gone were Richie Cunningham and Ralph Malph (played by Ron Howard and Donny Most respectively), as their characters joined the Army at the conclusion of Season 7. Left with little to do with his two best buddies gone, Potsie Webber (Anson Williams) was relegated to a supporting – and often minor – role for the remainder of the series.

Henry Winkler's Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli now did all of the narrative heavy lifting, with assistance from his younger cousin Chachi Arcola. Played by Scott Baio, Chachi had a budding romance with Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran), and the pair left in Season 10 for the ill-fated spin-off Joanie Loves Chachi. At one point, there was a complete shift in the character of the Fonz: He went from snapping his fingers to make the girls come running into a committed relationship with a single mother of a six-year-old daughter.

Watch the Final Scene from 'Happy Days'

When Season 11 commenced, Fonzie was back to being a bachelor, and Joanie and Chachi returned. Happy Days was also given a temporary ratings spike when Richie and Ralph came home from serving their country for a tear-jerking two-part episode. They didn't stick around, though: Howard's character jetted off to Hollywood to chase his dreams of becoming a screenwriter, while Malph went back to college.

Happy Days ambled along somewhat aimlessly from there. The hour-long series finale used an age-old storyline to wrap things up, as Joanie and Chachi finally tied the knot. Richie – along with his wife Lori Beth – showed up just in time to see the nuptials take place, though Potsie and Ralph didn't make it.

A subplot followed along as the Fonz became a Big Brother to a young orphan who he later decided to adopt. Unfortunately, the adoption board had an edict barring single parents from taking in a child, so they ruled against Winkler's character. That led Richie's dad (Tom Bosley) to explode: "If your policies can keep a guy like Fonzie from being his father, then I say to hell with your policies!" Not surprisingly, the Fonz gets to adopt the boy in the end.

As the show neared its conclusion, Bosley gave a wedding toast, breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera: "Thank you all for being part of our family," he said. "To happy days." A brief montage of highlights from the series followed, as a soundalike sang Elvis Presley's "Memories."

Oddly, that wasn't the last we heard from Happy Days. Five additional episodes followed later in 1984, during the summer sweeps week. Though technically new, they were actually unaired shows that fit in sequentially before Episode 14 of the final season.

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