Friday, January 29, 2010

JDM on Television, Part 4

Finishing it up, until something new comes along...


Broadcast in April 1980 on HBO, then broadcast in two parts as a mini-series by NBC on November 1 and 3. Based on the novel of the same name, published in March 1977. Adapted by Steve Hayes. Running time: 200 minutes

Starring Dan Haggerty, Barbara Eden, Steve Forrest, Richard Anderson, Ralph Bellamy, Macdonald Carry, Dane Clark, Linda Cristal, Elinor Donohue, Don Galloway, Pamela Hensley, Arte Johnson, Jack Jones, Dorothy Malone, Nehemiah Persoff and Stuart Whitman.

John D MacDonald's sprawling novel about retirees moving to Florida and living in a cheaply-made high rise building was a huge hit and remained on the best seller list for 97 weeks (hardcover and paperback combined). The film rights were purchased before the book was even published, and it was obvious to anyone who read it that it would have to be done on television -- there were just too many characters and interlocking stories. I saw it back when NBC showed it and never again since. It was a disappointment, with the meat of the novel glossed over and the characterizations poorly translated. The special effects -- a huge tidal wave taking out the high-rise -- I recall as laughable. Walter Shine excoriated it back in BIB 26, citing its "wretched casting... ridiculous cameo[s]... poor direction... soporific pace [and]...fair special effects" He concluded "JDM's powerful natural crescendo simply was not translated to the screen." In 1986 JDM recalled "... the relationship between the book and the movie is like unto horse and horsefly... the movie was a mildly entertaining simplification, with special effects that didn't quite work."

Never officially made available for video or DVD, unauthorized copies can be had.


Broadcast on May 17, 1980 as part of Operation Prime Time. Based on the novel of the same name, published in December 1962. Adapted by George Zateslo. Running time: 100 minutes.

Starring Robert Hays as Kirby, Pam Dawber as Bonny Lee Beaumont, Ed Nelson as Joseph Locordolos, Zohra Lampert as Wilma and Macdonald Cary as Mr. Grumby.

JDM's novel is a favorite of many of his fans. It's a delightful farce about a man who inherits a watch that can temporarily stop time, and is one of JDM's few outright comic novels, as well as being his third and final science fiction effort. The film rights were purchased soon after the novel's publication and at one point there were announcements that a theatrical adaptation was being prepared for Jack Lemmon. When the film finally appeared as a made-for-TV movie, expectations were low, which may account for how well the film was received by JDM fans. The novel is faithfully adapted, with some of the opening scenes taken nearly word-for-word from its source. Robert Hays and, especially, Pam Dawber were very good in the lead roles and the ratings were high enough to spawn a sequel -- The Girl, The Gold Watch and Dynamite -- which had nothing to do with JDM outside of the premise and characters (Hays and Dawber did not repeat their roles). The film was offered to member stations in two formats: a single show for a two-hour timeslot, or five half-hour episodes of a "mini-series."

MacDonald grudgingly referred to it as "a reasonably entertaining movie," an opinion that was not shared by his wife Dorothy, who felt most of the film took place in cars. I haven't seen it since it was first broadcast, but I liked it at the time. As far as I can tell the film was never released on tape or DVD, but is easily obtainable in bootleg editions.


Broadcast on May 18, 1983 as an ABC Movie Special. Based on the novel The Empty Copper Sea, published in September 1978. Adapted by Stirling Silliphant. Running time: 100 minutes.

Starring Sam Elliott as Travis McGee, Gene Evans as Meyer, Katharine Ross as Gretel, Vera Miles as Julie Lawless, Amy Madigan as Billy Jean Bailey and Richard Farnsworth as Van Harder.

After the film version of Darker Than Amber failed at the box-office, MacDonald told Clarence Petersen of the Chicago Tribune "If I had to do it over again I would never let Mr. McGee out of my hand. Not for a movie, not for television. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't even sell stereopticon rights to McGee."

It's always those kinds of unequivocal statements that get you in trouble...

In 1979 MacDonald's accountant informed him that when he died his estate faced a huge tax problem: the value of the estate would be increased by the amount of money he received for the film rights to Amber, plus the same amount for every other McGee novel that was not filmed! It basically forced him to re-sell the rights to raise cash, but he tried to do it in a manner that would make it too expensive for Hollywood to even try. "Times change," he wrote to a friend, "and inflation screws with the currency, and what was too expensive five years ago is apparently okay now."

Universal Studios decided to do a Travis McGee TV series and, at least in the beginning, they seemed to be trying. They were in touch with Ed Hirshberg, the editor of the JDM Bibliophile and requested much information, which they said was being put to good use. They had cast Sam Elliott as McGee, which for those of us who had seen the film Lifeguard, seemed like an OK choice. But then the shoes started dropping: The location was changed from Florida to California, the rationale given that there was no Intercoastal Waterway near LA, because -- you know -- it would be impossible for Hollywood to fake a Florida location. Then The Busted Flush was changed from a houseboat to a sailboat, although it would retain that name, because Elliott liked sailboats. The actor's then-girlfriend Katharine Ross was cast as Gretel, even though she was the physical opposite of the character described in the novel. Yikes! Still, the producers had high hopes that the effort would be "one of television's better efforts."

A year later BIB readers were informed that the production team that had been working on the series was gone, and Ernest Tidyman at Warner Brothers had taken over. The sailboat and California locale were dropped and everything would go back to normal. Sam Elliott, however, was still cast as McGee. Tidyman requested the same sort of background info the previous producers had requested, which was supplied, and then some.

Well, before the next issue of the BIB would be released (six months later) the project had changed. Tidyman was out, the series was now a made-for-TV movie pilot, and the sailboat was back in California. Even The Busted Flush name was gone, replaced by Bequia. I watched it when it was first broadcast, then forced myself to watch it again on videotape, then erased the tape. I recall it as possibly the worst attempt of adapting JDM to the screen, ever. Elliott apparently couldn't be bothered to shave his bushy mustache, so he looked nothing like Travis. He spoke in his characteristic twang, dropping his g's and sounding more like a rodeo clown than MacDonald's melancholy, intelligent hero. The feel of the thing was all wrong, so that even the sections of dialogue and voice-over that were taken directly from the book sounded trite and worn. Writing in The Washington Post, Tom Shales called Elliott "not so much a craggy actor as one great crag; his voice comes up straight from Middle Earth and his countenance is rangy and dry to the point of characterature."

JDM was not happy with the result either. He called Elliott "an OK actor, but he was swimming upstream." He was especially angry at the changing of the title. "What did they expect to call the sequel?" he fumed, and labeled the whole project a "mishmash."

The ratings, however, were apparently good enough to get Warners to green-light a series, but the producers diddled, and by the time they had made up their minds to go forward, Elliott was committed to other projects and unavailable. "They must really be congenital incompetents," rued MacDonald. "I should never have peddled McGee."

No official DVD of this film is currently available, but bootleg copies are.

19. "Ring Around the Redhead"

Broadcast on October 13, 1985 as an episode of the anthology series Tales From the Darkside. Based on the short story of the same name, published in the November 1948 issue of Startling Stories. Adapted by Theodore Gershuny. 30 minutes.

Starring John Heard as Billy Malone and Penelope Ann Miller as Keena.

Tales From the Darkside was an attempt at reviving a horror/science fiction anthology show, and it ran for four seasons, from 1983 to 1988. "Ring Around the Redhead" was the third episode of the second season. I have written a blog posting about both the story and its television adaptation here.

The entire series has been released on DVD.

Broadcast on October 8, 1993 as a USA Network made-for-cable movie. Based on the novella of the same name, published in the 1956 book Border Town Girl, and later in the March 1959 issue of Climax. Adapted by Nevin Schreiner. Running time: 86 minutes.

Starring Virginia Madsen as Linda, Richard Thomas as Paul and Ted McGinley as Jeff.

Known in the UK as Lust for Murder, this second adaptation of "Linda" is inferior but not completely worthless. Virginia Madsen is no Stella Stevens, but she does manage to evoke a kind of soulless evil. Richard Thomas, as her husband, essays the role far better than Ed Nelson did in the original, perhaps helped by the use of voice over, which the original eschewed. The locale is back in Florida where the novella took place (the other version moved the setting to Carmel, California), but the look of the film is cheap and doesn't approach the stunning Technicolor in the first version. Outside of a few tweaks here and there, this is still a faithful adaptation, with some lines from MacDonald's story added at the end.

Released on VHS, used copies are circulating.

As far as I can determine, that's everything. If anyone is aware of of anything I've missed, please let me know.

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