Saturday, September 01, 2018

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.

22 comments :

Peter said...

And now, 42 years later, we're just a few weeks away from Cosby being sentenced to prison. How times change.

I think the funniest story meeting you recounted was the terrible producer who pitched a joke about the way to a woman's heart is through fucking her in the ass. I'm gonna see if I can find the post you told that story!

Uncle Bill said...

Sounded like a 'Tom and Jerry' gag to me.

Peter said...

Here's the post!
http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2010/10/one-of-true-idiots-ive-ever-worked-with.html?m=1

"But one of the producers was maybe the worst writer I’ve ever encountered in the business."

"When the one character was reluctant to Xerox his ass the other was now to say, “Look, everyone knows the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt".

Tom Scarlett said...

I almost never "laugh out loud" when I'm reading something by myself, but I almost fell off my chair at "Maybe in Quick Draw McGraw's world." Thank you.

Michael said...

Meeting Barbera would have been a thrill. I'm more thrilled that I met Chuck Jones, and have his and Friz Freleng's autographs.

Fred Vogel said...

As a youngster I would dumpster dive at the H-B building and retrieve old cels. Wish I still had 'em.

Kosmo13 said...

"Get Smart" had already done the gurney gag.

kent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

A question on writing a role for a particular actor.

In movies : I have heard that actors request an 'established writer' to write a role for them in their spec script or request him to recommend to the studio that particular actor for some role while selling their script. I know casting is not in the writer's hand, but big name writer's word of recommendation carries weight.

Big stars buy scripts, books and then get it re-written which is a whole different thing.

In TV : Was there anytime when an actor requested you to recommend him/her for a role in any of the pilots that you may be pitching to a network?

I am asking you Ken, since you are an established name, so surely actors would have approached you.

This question flashed to me, when reading Joe Eszterhas' book where he says, he was always pestered by actors to include them for any role in the script he was writing, or requested him to recommend them to the studios to include that actor in the movie.

He drops one name - Faye Dunaway - calling him at all hours for a role/any role.

Jeff said...

Variety review from August 23, 1978

[img]https://i.imgur.com/ae1ZR2n.jpg[/img]

J Lee said...

Joe was probably channeling Frank Tashlin, the former Warner Bros' cartoon director who made the transition from animation to live action as a writer and then director for the Marx Brothers, Bob Home and Martin & Lewis. Tashlin's gags were know for their cartoon-like qualities, but those work best in efforts where you're not trying to go for a realistic story setting at the same time (though closer to the present time, Jack Nicholson worked for Hanna-Barbera when he first started out in Hollywood -- when Hanna-Barbera were producing CinemaScope Tom & Jerry cartoons for MGM in the mid-1950s) -- and some of his later roles were cartoony enough for Joe Barbera to have gagged them, even in an overall sort-of-serious movie).

Mike said...

Mentioning Failure Theater reminds me of a Friday Question I've been meaning to ask: I have a book documenting unsold TV show pilots from 1948 up through the book's publication in 1989. It's a fascinating read, both to see what concepts were ordered but didn't make it, and to see which stars were attached. Anyway, I noticed that as recently as the 1980s, a lot of unsold pilots (mostly the sitcom pilots) were burned off in anthology series over the summer, usually under the title of "CBS Summer Playhouse" or something like that. But it doesn't happen nowadays (save the occasional "1313 Mockingbird Lane"). Why do you suppose that is? Are networks that doubtful about the concepts they did order to series that they don't want to share the ones they passed on? After all, the pilot's a sunk cost; even reality shows or game shows have some production expenses. So it's not like a big rating would be needed -- and besides, I'm sure you'd have folks tuning in just for the curiosity factor, especially if the unsold pilot has a fairly big name attached.

Flynn said...

@Mike - if you read this, what's the name of the unsold pilots book and where can you get it? Thanks.

Mike Bloodworth said...

That story almost sounds like a potential sitcom. Combining the mismatched pair scenario with the show within a show hook. The tag line: "Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Not even they know." And imagine the possibilities for wacky guest star pairings. e.g. a dramatic actor such as Benedict Cumberbatch with comedian Tiffany Haddish. Also, if you pitch it to pay-cable or a streaming service you could say the "F-word" and show "boobies."
M.B.

Lemuel said...

If I can stray OT, the Decades antenna channel is showing a POLICE WOMAN marathon. I loved this show when it was on and it hasn't aged badly. "Pepper, you're going undercover..."

Greg Ehrbar said...

Hanna-Barbera dabbled quite a bit in live action in the '70s, starting with the ABC TV-movie "Hardcase" with Clint Walker and including such gems as "Belle Starr" with Elizabeth Montgomery and "The Beasts Are in the Streets." They even tried to get into Disney wacky comedy territory with a theatrical film with Valerie Bertinelli called "C.H.O.M.P.S." (which did have a fully animated title sequence). Barbera's finest foray into live-action was the acclaimed Ed Asner holiday drama, "The Gathering."

The H-B building at 3400 Cahuenga Blvd is still there. There are several businesses inside including Universal Creative, Universal Mastering Studios and Added Value Marketing Insights. From the signage I assume that there is office space available at 828-SKY-0321 if anyone in interested.

I know all this because I like to visit the LA Fitness next door, where parking is in the garage behind 3400 and one can even see part of it from the pool. Like you Ken, I'm fond of the building and the memories that came from it, too (even though many of the early classics were actually done elsewhere, including what is now Muppet Studios but used to be A&M Records and before that Chaplin Studios). I grew up associating the building with Hanna-Barbera cartoons and records, so it has special meaning.

It once faced destruction but was saved for its historic significance by the Los Angeles Conservancy. I was one of those who wrote to the powers that be at length in hopes to preserve it.
https://www.laconservancy.org/locations/hanna-barbera-building

Anonymous said...

I remember this! Not well, of course. The one bit I remember is that, at the end, Joanne Nail yells "Show biz!" or something very much like that, the lights and sirens go on, and the trio zooms off to its next exciting ambulance call as the credits begin to roll.

The only other thing I've ever seen Joanne Nail in was a film called The Gumball Rally. I thought she was cute as hell.

Andy Rose said...

I've always been amused by sitcom writers' need to justify a catchy nickname by making it a diminutive of a very unlikely last name. So it turns out that Squiggy's real name on Laverne and Shirley is Andrew Squiggman. Makes perfect sense now.

This show continued in that grand tradition. Raquel Welch's character didn't have a last name in the movie, so the TV show justified the misspelling of "Jugs" by giving her the ridiculous name Jennifer Juggston.


@Jeff: What a very 70s review! The critic refers to a supporting supporting character in the original movie "as a sort of sexual psychopath, who liked nothing better than to fondle female accident victims in the back of the ambulance, and sometimes even try to have sex with them," and then complains that the TV version isn't nearly so interesting! And to top it off, it is helpfully pointed out that Joanne Nail's breasts aren't all that big.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Ray Vitte performed the first-season theme for "Doc," a short-lived MTM effort in the mid-seventies.

The theme is on YouTube.

Donald Benson said...

On adaptations: My dad loved "House Calls", a comedy that included Art Carney as a borderline senile and dangerously incompetent chief of staff. Walter Matthau finally stands up to him in the end. Dad was a doctor, and was pretty sure the screenplay was based on a very specific hospital. (He was also a fan of "MASH", especially after a scene where Hawkeye held up a specific implement. "Whatcha gonna do with that, Doc?" "Guess.")

Then came the TV version. David Wayne played the chief of staff, still old and incompetent but presented as lovable. Dad tuned out with great irritation, saying something to the effect it was irresponsible to imply it was all right to cover for the guy.

thirteen said...

@Andy Rose "And to top it off, it is helpfully pointed out that Joanne Nail's breasts aren't all that big." The one time a movie required a nude scene from Joanne Nail, they had to use stunt breasts. This does not make her any less cute IMHO.

Also, "The critic refers to a supporting supporting character in the original movie "as a sort of sexual psychopath, who liked nothing better than to fondle female accident victims in the back of the ambulance, and sometimes even try to have sex with them[.]" I had a friend who was an EMT in New York City in the '70s, and he told me that unconscious prostitutes were often fondled. Sometimes they'd wake up in the middle of it, and there'd be huge fights in the back of the suddenly rocking and swerving ambulance. I'm not aware of a case being brought against any EMT at the time.

VincentS said...

I saw that pilot. It's not surprising to me that you and David Isaacs were brought in to re-write the pilot - though I'd love do read Tom Mankiewicz's original script - and that the movie and TV adaptation were produced by Fox since I've always considered the movie MASH in an ambulance.