Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mission Impossible meets Top Cat

This is another crazy story that happened along the way in our career. This was on a pilot rewrite.

In 1976 there was a somewhat popular movie called MOTHER, JUGS, & SPEED about ambulance drivers starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch (as Jugs of course), and Harvey Keitel.

Two years later ABC commissioned a TV pilot of the movie. They changed Jugs to Juggs so it would sound (or at least read) less sexual… although unless you’re from the hills of Kentucky there is no other meaning for “jugs.” Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay, was hired to write the pilot.

For whatever reason, ABC greenlit the project but wasn’t happy with the script. David Isaacs and I were recruited to do a rewrite. We were on MASH at the time, this was a project about funny medicos, produced for the same studio (20th) -- so we got the call. Whether seventeen other writers had gotten the call before us and turned it down, we’ll never know.

We accepted the assignment and met with the executive producers. Here’s where it got a little weird. The two executive producers were Bruce Geller (who created MISSION IMPOSIBLE) and Joseph Barbera (one half of Hanna-Barbera, the animation mill that turned out Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, Jetsons, etc.). Kind of an odd pairing. Apparently the idea for the original movie was Barbera’s so that’s how he got involved. Bruce Geller’s involvement? I have no idea.

They met with us and told us what they wanted. The realism of MASH. It shouldn’t feel sitcommy. The humor had to come out of attitudes and real situations. We were to think of this as a drama with comedic touches. Okay. That was fine with us.

Then Joe Barbera pitched a possible beat.  And I swear to you this is true.  The ambulance is at the top of a hill. The back door flies open and a guy on a gurney rolls out and barrels down the hill. He hits a fire hydrant, which flips the gurney, sending the patient airborne where he lands in an open garbage can. Joe even made a “boing!” sound as he described the patient landing in the trash can. We sat there totally gobsmacked. This was “real?” Maybe in Quick Draw McGraw’s world.

Everyone was pleased with our rewrite (despite not doing the gurney gag), and the show was filmed. No actors from the movie participated. Ray Vitte, Joanne Nail, and Joe Penny got the lead roles. I never saw it. The show was not picked up. But that figures because in our entire career we’ve never gotten a show picked up by ABC – we’re talking 30 years, 50 regimes, and three owners.) It aired that year in August on Failure Theater, but I was either busy or just didn’t care. We were uncredited (which was fine).

The real kick for me was being in a story session with Joe Barbera. Yeah, his gag was absurd. But as a kid I loved Hanna-Barbera cartoons (I still do). I would drive by their complex on West Cahuenga Boulevard in the valley and wish that I could work there. Or even get a tour. And now I was in a room with the man himself. And he was pitching me Top Cat. Dreams sometimes do come true.

38 comments:

RockGolf said...

Just last night the authors of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows" updated their list of TV's 100 most successful TV series of all-time based on ratings & longevity to include the 2013-14 season. You can find the original source of the list in the URL my name is linked to, or you can test your memory by trying to guess what made the list at http://www.sporcle.com/games/rockgolf/masters-of-their-domain

Hint: Shows Ken has written or directed on are at positions #'s 16, 18, 21, 42 & -erm- 168 (which I added because I figured everyone would guess it anyways).

Scooter Schechtman said...

"as a kid I loved Hanna-Barbera cartoons (I still do)."
Here's what's wrong with you.

s said...

The runaway gurney gag was done best in a Jerry Lewis flick "The Disorderly Orderly".

Didn't NBC have "Emergency" on at the time? (Oh yeah; Julie London!)

Never saw M.J.& S. but the best thing I saw involving an ambulance was the Scorsese film "Bringing Out The Dead" with Nicolas Cage!

Pat Reeder said...

To RockGolf: I played the game and did pretty well. But the one I can't believe isn't on the list is "Columbo." Not even as part of the highly-rated anthology series of NBC Mystery Movies. How could so many more people have watched "A Different World," "NCIS: L.A." or "Family Affair" than "Columbo?" I tell ya, sir, that's bothering me...

Richard Y said...

How very interesting as in the course of my research on this project (vehicles, filming locations, cast, the TA on the project, etc)your names never came up - uncredited to say the least. Thank you for this info

benson said...

There was one line in the MJS movie that stuck with me for all these years. To me it's brilliant. "People never suffer the way you want them to."

Anonymous said...

Pat Reeder: Maybe the "longevity" qualification is what kept "Columbo" off the list, if the compilers went by number of episodes rather than years on the air. The original version ran for six years, but produced only 43 episodes; the revival ran for fifteen years, but produced only 24 episodes. Combine those numbers, and you get fewer episodes than "A Different World" produced in three years (which was only half of its run). That is a possibility, anyway.

RockGolf said...

@Pat Reeder: As you surmised, the reason Columbo isn't in there is likely that it was never a regularly scheduled series. The Sunday Night Mystery Movie was decade ahead of its time: 3 or 4 unconnected rotating series in the same genre & timeslot.

It's a wonder networks aren't thinking of going back to that format.

ScottyB said...

Who's Rachel Welch? Any relation to that famous actress Raquel? :)

Gordon said...

My parents used to drive past Hanna and Barbera's building all the time and I would wish I could work there, too, as we whisked by.... Then I did...

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

RockGolf: Maybe the reason the networks are not going back to the "wheel" format is that the last time NBC tried it, the result was a disaster.

For those who have forgotten: NBC put a "Friday Night Mystery Movie" on its 1994 schedule. There were to be five rotating series: "Guy Hanks," starring Bill Cosby as a police forensics analyst who wins the lottery, retires, grows bored, and starts unofficially helping an old friend from the police; "MacShayne," with Kenny Rogers as a professional gambler/house detective for a Las Vegas casino; "Staying Afloat," with Larry Hagman as a high society tax cheater helping the IRS catch other high society tax cheaters; a revival of "Hart to Hart," starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers; and--the big catch--"Perry Mason," starring Raymond Burr. NBC was at the time producing three "Mason" movies a year, and they were always big ratings winners; incorporating them into the new series was obviously to its advantage.

So, what happened?

First, NBC decided that, instead of a monthly two-hour series called "Guy Hanks," it wanted a weekly one-hour series called "The Cosby Mysteries." According to Lee Goldberg, one of the writers of the show, this pretty much doomed that series, because the producers suddenly found themselves needing a lot more scripts quickly, and there simply wasn't enough time to produce that many scripts that both worked as satisfactory mysteries and pleased the notoriously meddlesome Cosby.

Then, Raymond Burr died. A way was eventually found to continue the series without him, with Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook playing other attorneys who handled Mason's cases while he was out of town, but that came too late for the new show.

Two episodes of "MacShayne" were run; they pleased no one, and that series was quickly canceled. Though Larry Hagman made the rounds of the talk shows plugging "Staying Afloat" at the start of the season, NBC kept pushing it back further into the season. Finally the pilot was quietly shown--and that was all.

This left "Hart to Hart" to carry the day, with the result that a batch of episodes meant to last six months were burned through in two. For the rest of the year, NBC ran anything it had on its hands that it could call a mystery movie; mostly that meant "Perry Mason" re-runs.

So, one can see that this might have soured the networks on the "wheel" format.

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

After writing the above, I remembered that there was one subsequent mystery wheel series, which ran on the Hallmark Channel. At the time (circa 2007), that channel was having some success with re-runs of "Columbo," "Matlock," and "Perry Mason," and this inspired it to try producing some similar shows of its own.

The rotating series were "Mystery Woman" (Kellie Martin as a mystery book store owner/amateur detective), "Jane Doe" (Lea Thompson as an FBI agent/soccer mom), and "McBride" (John Larroquette as an Atlanta-based lawyer--any resemblance to "Matlock" was surely intentional, given that many of the same people worked on both shows).

What seems to have doomed this was Hallmark's decision to pad out the schedule by including old episodes of "Columbo," two-part episodes of "Matlock," and the "Perry Mason" movies. These got pretty much the same ratings as the new series, and cost the network a lot less, so of course eventually production was stopped entirely on the new series, and Hallmark's Sunday mystery movie became an all-rerun affair. Then, after awhile, the channel changed formats to its current Lifetime-lite one, and the point became moot.

Dixon Steele said...

The gurney bit was also used as the "finale" in the now-classic WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S...

Tim W. said...

I can't believe I've never, ever heard of that movie. It's called Mother, Jugs & Speed and it stars Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel and I've never heard of it. There's something wrong, there.

MikeN said...

Were the two episodes of McShayne, Winner Takes All and The Final Roll of the Dice, or are those different movies?

Paul Duca said...

Hanna-Barbera actually produced the original MOTHER, JUGGS & SPEED film...and I understood that Bruce Geller was killed in a 1968 auto accident.

Phil In Phoenix said...

Bruce Geller was killed in 1978, when a plane he was piloting crashed.

BetterYeti said...

I have very fond memories of Failure Theater. One of the few August diversions in the evenings when my friends were at camp or summer houses.

I actually remember watching this one (the prospect of "Juggs" being irresistible to a pre-teen boy). So, the episode has been building to the first time they have an emergency and have to run with full siren and flashers. I can't remember the exact line, but "Speed" drops this turd of a "showtime!" obvious wannabe catchphrase. Don't know why I have this vivid a memory unless it was just the first I had a "come on, who rights this stuff" moment. The circle is now complete.

thirteen said...

I saw the pilot, and the only thing I remember about it is the "Showtime!" at the end. I guess it worked?

Richard Y said...

The series was given a “go“ after a New York presentation by Producer Bruce Geller (Mannix, Mission Impossible, whose hand lights the match) along with ABC executive Stephen Gentry, West Coast Vice President of Programming. They were in the process of retooling and recasting the program (unable to determine to what extent) for a mid-season lineup when they were both killed in a plane crash in May 1978. TV Guide of August 12-18, 1978 lists MJ&S as “a pilot for a possible series not on ABC’s announced fall schedule.” The series did not go into production.

VincentS said...

First of all, Mr. Barbara's pitch sounded - surprise, surprise - like a scene from a cartoon. Also, I actually remember this pilot - I spent the vast majority of my childhood watching TV - and, despite you and Mr. Isaac's participation in it - I wasn't particularly impressed by it. But I will say that you and David Isaacs were logical choices since the movie to me was MASH in an ambulance.

James said...

[b]Mother Jugs & Speed[/b] was an odd movie. I keep watching it trying to figure out what's wrong. It's black humor, and I *love* black humor (i.e. death or dark-subject humor), but the movie is so uneven. It's like it started out to be a drama and someone changed it to a comedy, or vice-versa, but it only got done half-way and it doesn't do either one properly.

Brandon Tartikoff's corpse, spinning in my grave said...

Hi Ken, Friday question: what's your take on the news that NBC has commissioned a pilot script for a remake of the 1990 John Ritter "film", "Problem Child"? Personally, I cannot for the life of me comprehend how NBC is still in business.

Okay, another Friday question: WHAT THE HELL IS BROADCAST TV'S PROBLEM??!!

Thank you!

Dana Gabbard said...

If I can plug a friend's blog given the cartoon hook of this post all sorts of interesting stuff on animation including Hanna-Barbera can be found at Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research which draws on an amzing group of cartoon experts (Jim Korkis, Greg Ehrbar, Mike Kazaleh, Fred Patten and Thad Komorowski and Steve Stanchfield, among others along with Beck).

How about this jaw dropping obscurity they recently discovered? Anyone ever hear of a 1960s animated pilot for a series to be called Black, Kloke and Dagga produced by Morey Amsterdam, who also did the voice of the lead spy (this also has Zsa Zsa Gabor). Very odd.

Dana Gabbard said...

Broadcast TV is struggling with what its place is in the new media landscape. Ricky Van Veen on an episode of Michael Feldman's Whad'Ya Know explained that the new movie Coffee Town he produced was distributed via digital platforms because they were targeting the youth market and some teenagers while visiting the collegehumor.com offices said except for epics like Avengers that they only saw movies via devices and at home streaming. Les Moonves made recent comments that reflect nearly a third of the audience of network shows these days see it later via streaming, Tivo, etc. As with any era of change the networks are still trying to grapple with how to position themselves, and I think the series going on air these days reflect that uncertainty (especially poor NBC).

Gary Theroux said...

I actually DID get a tour of the Hanna Barbara Studios when I was a kid in 1966 and was interested in becoming an animator. (I'd made a few animated cartoons with my Dad's 8mm movie camera over the previous five years.) It was a rare and fascinating tour which culminated in meeting the two founders, who suggest I attend college (which was still years away) at Cal Arts. The key reason I didn't was that I could only draw in my own style and could not draw any of the HB characters particularly well. I decided to stick with radio and live-action film and TV and hope that one day I'd meet up with Ken Levine. That took eight more years!

Alan C said...

I've got to think Joe Barbera was just messing with you.

John said...

If you want information on the early Hanna-Barbera cartoons, the Yowp blog (named after one of the cartoon dogs in some early Yogi Bear shorts) is the place to go. It also has a number of contemporary newspaper stories on the H-B studio, which pretty much capture Joe Barbera in the same way Ken describes him.

JoeyH said...

In 1976 I was part-timimg as an ambulance EMT while going to college. My EMT friends and I LOVED the movie. Of course we were all hoping the boss would hire someone like Jugs.

Dana Gabbard said...

There was a presentation at WonderCon this year of photos etc. from the early HB era that hopefully will be released commercially someday.

Pat Reeder said...

Thanks for all the info on the rotating mystery movie genre. I figured the absence of Columbo had to be due to some quirk like that, because he's definitely one of the greatest characters in TV history, and the movies always drew huge ratings.

As for "Mother, Jugs and Speed," I remember the movie (I think I even have an old one-sheet for it in a closet somewhere that I picked up years ago for a couple of bucks at the old Duncan Posters in Dallas, before the ceiling caved in), but I never saw the TV pilot. I do remember as a kid watching failed pilots every summer. But the only one I remember, for some reason, starred Fred Gynne as an eccentric inventor whose formula accidentally turned his crabby mother-in-law (Rita Shaw) into a glass statue. Don't worry, he was able to turn her back before the credits rolled. Why I remember that, I have no earthly idea. I even remember that he demonstrated the formula by turning a banana into glass. When I am ancient and plagued with Alzheimer's, I suspect that's going to be the only thing from my entire life that I still remember.

Pat Reeder said...

Typo correction: Fred Gwynne.

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

According to the IMDB, that pilot with Fred Gwynne was entitled "Mad Mad Scientist." He soon followed that with another unsold pilot, "Anderson and Company." Reportedly, it was the failure of these that convinced Gwynne to leave Hollywood and focus his career on the New York stage.

J.K. said...

I had just finished working on my new spec pilot, 'MILF, Tits, and Heroin' when I came across your blog post. I had great hopes of selling it to the producers of Whitney and 2 Broke Girls. I think I am going to need to re-work this.

Pat Reeder said...

To Touch-and-Go Bullethead: Thank you for finally confirming that that show wasn't just a childhood delusion brought on by too much sugar and red dye #2 in my Kook Aid.


To J.K.: No, if you're pitching it to the producers of "2 Broke Girls," leave "MILF, Tits and Heroin" exactly the way it is.

Pat Reeder said...

No, Kook-Aid isn't a typo. I grew up poor. We had to drink the generic brand.

Brian said...

Great story! Netflix has the movie, too bad its not on streaming. I'll have to burn two days for mailing the dvd.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Wow, Pat! I haven't thought about that Fred Gwynne pilot for years! He wanted to turn a slice of bread to glass, she held it for him and the injection went into her palm. Yeah, I know...

Here's another one from around the same time: It starred Ernest Borgnine and Joan Blondell. She was making the family go broke with her compulsive gambling, and he wished that she would turn into a horse if she ever gambled again. He made the wish by some magic teapot or something, because it steamed and whistled at that moment. She gambled again and as she left the betting window, DING! Mrs. Ed.

When Borgnine found out he said something like, "Well they're both nags!" (electric laughter).