Q: I seem to remember years ago that networks would do a pilot movie to test the waters for a new series. Sometimes that would be the end of it. Other times you’d see the show would be picked up for a regular time slot. Why do they not do pilots anymore? Can you think of a pilot that launched a series but where the actors playing the main characters were changed?
T.N., of Edwardsville
A: Perhaps my long-term memory isn’t what it used to be (or maybe it’s been zapped by too many hours in front of the boob tube), but the only show I can remember being launched by a movie spectacular was the sci-fi thriller “V” in 1983. Otherwise, you name the series — “Leave It To Beaver,” “Lost in Space,” “Bewitched,” “I Spy,” “Man From U.N.C.L.E., etc., etc., etc. — and the so-called “pilot” episode simply did what pilot episodes were supposed to do — introduce the characters and start creating a world that would lure us back week after week. Almost by definition, a pilot is generally (but not always) the first episode that viewers see, but historically I would argue it has almost always been the same length as future shows in the series — 30 or 60 minutes.
As I pointed out last week, on rare occasions a TV movie will draw such a large audience that it will blossom into a series. Such was the case with “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” which CBS quickly turned into “The Waltons” with a largely different cast from the original movie. Although “The Homecoming” is often thought of as the show’s pilot, it really wasn’t.
Nowadays, unless a network thinks it has an absolute sure-fire, can’t-miss idea, it probably will not order a two-hour movie pilot because it’s just too expensive. In the past, they would run them as a TV movie whether they intended to turn them into a series or not simply to recoup some of the expense. By the time networks made a final decision, the show might have had to be recast because one of the stars had become unavailable.
Just look at “Cagney and Lacey.” You may not remember, but the original TV movie co-starred Loretta “Hot Lips” Swit as Chris Cagney, but she had to be replaced by Meg Foster by the time the series premiered in March 1982. In turn, Foster was axed for Sharon Gless after six episodes because, according to a TV Guide article, Foster was perceived by CBS suits as too hard and too masculine. In the end, the original movie was not considered a pilot and is generally not included on DVD collections.
Occasionally, even a substantial casting change didn’t make a difference. In 1975, “The Invisible Man” had David McCallum revealing his ability to make things invisible to his boss, played by Jackie Cooper in the original movie. Yet even though Cooper was replaced by Craig Stevens in the series, the movie is considered the pilot.
Also popular (and cheap) are producing episodes of one series and hoping they can be turned into a successful spinoff. For example, when NBC decided to give popular “Cosby Show” star Lisa Bonet (Denise Huxtable) her own show, they produced a “Cosby Show” episode that had her visiting the college that would become the setting for “A Different World.” Similarly, a JAG episode introduced us to the characters of “NCIS,” which begat “NCIS: Los Angeles,” which begat “NCIS: New Orleans.” In the same vein, it was an episode of “Golden Girls” that helped launch “Empty Nest.”
That scheme, however, doesn’t always work. The series finale of “One Day at a Time” was supposed to give new life to Pat Harrington’s character, Dwayne Schneider, but CBS nixed the idea. And NBC grounded a plan to spin off an original “Star Trek” episode into “Assignment: Earth,” in which actor Robert Lansing would play an earthling raised by aliens before being sent back to watch over his home planet in the 1960s.
“Star Trek” has the distinction of having its original pilot episode reshaped and turned into a two-part episode that was aired midway through the first season. In the original pilot, shot in 1965, the USS Enterprise had actor Jeffrey Hunter at the helm as Capt. Christopher Pike with a crew that included only Leonard Nimoy and Majel Barrett (creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife) as faces we would recognize today. But NBC said “The Cage” was too cerebral, so it ordered a second pilot that began to give us the crew we came to know and love: Kirk, Spock, Bones, Sulu and Yeoman Rand. “The Cage” would not be broadcast in its original form until 1988, but the show’s creators cobbled together wasted footage of it to produce “The Menagerie” Parts I and II on Nov. 17 and Nov. 24, 1966.
Now, to answer your second question, consider these major early cast changes that may surprise you:
▪ Hardly shipshape: The original pilot for “Gilligan’s Island” showed our castaways being stranded on the island and featured a calypso theme song. By the time we joined them on their ill-fated three-hour cruise, they were already stranded, the theme had become the familiar ditty we love to sing today, and Russell Johnson, Tina Louise and Dawn Wells had replaced John Gabriel, Kit Smythe and “dumb blonde” Nancy McCarthy. The original pilot later was reworked into a flashback episode.
▪ A fond farewell, Mrs. Cleaver: In 1957, 13-year-old Harry Shearer was cast as Frankie on “Leave It to Beaver,” but before the series premiered his parents yanked him, because they wanted him to have a normal childhood. That move allowed us to be introduced to Ken Osmond as Eddie Haskell, who, as Ward Cleaver once said, was “so (insincerely) polite, it’s almost un-American.”
▪ Horsing around: Not even animals can escape the chopping block. The pilot episode of “Mr. Ed” featured Scott McKay as Wilbur Pope and a difficult-to-deal-with chestnut gelding as his talking horse. But when the network said “neigh,” the show was redone with Alan Young as Wilbur Post and a more cooperative crossbred gelding named Bamboo Harvester.
▪ Razzing Roz: Before she hit it big on “Friends,” Lisa Kudrow was slated to play Roz, Kelsey Grammar’s long-suffering producer on “Frasier,” but she was replaced after a couple of days of rehearsals by Peri Gilpin. “I knew it wasn’t working,” Kudrow said later. “I could feel it all slipping away, and I was panicking, which only made things worse.”
▪ Third time’s the charm: Originally, Kelly Jean Peters was picked to play Gloria, the daughter of Archie and Edith Justice in a proposed series called “Justice for All.” Then, Candice Azzara took the role for “Those Were the Days.” Finally, the Justices became the Bunkers and Sally Struthers became the Meathead’s wife when CBS took a chance on “All in the Family,” which premiered Jan. 12, 1971. (The same is true for Suzanne Somers, who finally landed her spot on “Three’s Company” after Susanne Zenor and Susan Lanier were nixed.)
▪ Honeymoon was over: Pert Kelton, a prominent comedic supporting actress of the 1930s, was Jackie Gleason’s original wife in the 1955 TV hit “The Honeymooners.” But when her husband was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, she was dropped after seven episodes in favor of Audrey Meadows.
▪ He was a real munster: When originally shot, the role of Eddie in “The Munsters” was handled by Nate Derman. But the powers at CBS didn’t like Nate playing the role as a spoiled brat so they went with Butch Patrick instead.
▪ No joke: In the original pilot, a still largely unknown comic named Louie Anderson was cast as Bronson Pinchot’s distant cousin on “Perfect Strangers,” the long-running ABC hit. But when NBC execs saw the final product, they weren’t laughing and replaced him with Mark Linn-Baker.
What series’ pilot episode drew the largest TV audience in history?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Of all the states in the union, only Alaska can be typed by using keys on just one row of a standard keyboard.