Creating a Series

Writer-producer Anthony Spinner once told me that when he goes into the studios or the networks to try to sell a new series, he presents them something old but with a change. Obviously he wasn’t the only one doing that.

In 1961 Desilu Productions debuted BEN CASEY, a medical drama of a young surgeon and his aged mentor Dr. David Zorba. Two years later the same studio debuted BREAKING POINT, a medical drama of young Dr. McKinley Thompson and his aged mentor Dr. Edward Raymer. The change? They were psychiatrists!

Also in 1961 MGM adapted to television their 1930’s Lew Ayres-Lionel Barrymore medical series. Titled DR. KILDARE it was the story of a young blonde intern and his aged mentor, Dr. Gillespie. Two years later MGM debuted MR. NOVAK, a drama about a young blonde and his aged mentor, but this time the young blonde was a High School English teacher and the mentor was his principal.

David Victor was the story editor when DR. KILDARE debuted in 1961. Midway through the first season he moved into the producer’s chair. Eight years later in 1969 David had moved from MGM in Culver City to Universal on the other side of the hills. There he created a new medical series, MARCUS WELBY, M.D., still a story about a young doctor and an older doctor. The change? The older doctor, Marcus Welby was the main character assisted by his much younger partner, Dr. Steve Kiley.

In 1963 QM Productions debuted THE FUGITIVE, a new series created by Roy Huggins. It was the story of Dr. Richard Kimble who, falsely convicted of his wife’s murder, en route to death row his train derails and he escapes and begins a cross-country search for the real killer. As he travels cross-country weekly he becomes involved with new people in new situations. It took four seasons of these encounters for him to find the killer. Two years later in 1965 Roy Huggins created a new series, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE. It was the story of attorney Paul Bryan who is told by his doctor that he will die in no less than 9 months, but in no more than 18 months. Paul, deciding to cram all the things he had never had time for into that brief period, travels cross-country as he weekly becomes involved with new people in new situations. His doctor’s 18-month prognosis had not realized the potential benefit to his health of television. Paul lasted for three seasons (three years) before expiring.

In 1971 Lorimar Productions produced a movie-for-television, Earl Hamner’s THE HOMECOMING: A CHRISTMAS STORY. Not intended as a pilot, it was so successful that CBS ordered one season of a series with those same characters. That series was THE WALTONS. Spurred on by that success a new two-hour movie-pilot was developed by Hamner. Originally titled CHRISTMAS DREAMS, it became A DREAM FOR CHRISTMAS, a film I directed. Having directed so many episodes of THE WALTONS, I am (and was) aware of the similarities between that series and this new hopeful contender. Both had at its core a father, a mother and a sixteen-year old son. Here were the changes: THE WALTONS father was a laborer; the DREAM father was a minister. THE WALTONS had the father’s parents (Grandma and Grandpa Walton) living with them; DREAM just had the minister’s mother. In addition to the sixteen-year old THE WALTONS had 6 more children; DREAM had only 3. THE WALTONS lived in the South (Virginia) in the1930’s; the DREAM family moved from Arkansas in the South to California in the 1950’s. But the major change — THE WALTONS were white; the DREAM family was black (this was before African-American became the accepted designation). THE WALTONS ran for 9 seasons. A DREAM FOR CHRISTMAS (an excellent film that I am very proud of) DID NOT become a series. These many years later I do sometimes wonder if the DREAM minister and his family had been white — was that an unnecessary change?

Let’s us, using Spinner’s formula, see what we can create! Since I’m so familiar with THE WALTONS, let’s use that as our “old” starting place. THE WALTONS was a very large family. 11 members! 11 running cast members making weekly appearances! That’s 11 WEEKLY SALARIES! Look at the successful series with a family headed only by a dad. MY THREE SONS, BACHEOR FATHER, THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. And they were all sitcoms. I can’t remember there being an hour-long series family with only a father. I think I’ll get rid of the mother. And I’ll lose the grandparents and go with fewer kids. How about 2? I’ll keep the 16-year old and just one younger brother. That means my running cast will just be 3! Good budgetary move. My series will be in the present. That way I won’t have worry about period automobiles (I’ve gone through that with the series BANYON) and wardrobe (been there, done that with A DREAM FOR CHRISTMAS). What profession for the father? Lawyer? Doctor? Baker? Banker? Artist? Photographer? YEAH! A professional photographer seeking big stories to photograph! I’ll borrow from Route 66. He’ll be traveling the country in search of those stories. But with 2 kids they won’t fit into a Corvette. THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY traveled a lot in a bus. I’ll put my family in a motor home. Great! No exterior house location to film and no sets of living room, bedrooms, kitchen, bathrooms. More money saved. And I’ll do what QM did and rather than actually traveling the country as ROUTE 66 did, I’ll shoot in the LA area. And just like Richard Kimble my family of three will be staying in southern California while traveling cross-country weekly becoming involved with new people in new situations.

OOPS! It seems somebody beat me to the punch. I wonder if creator Jerry McNeely took my Spinner-influenced route to create his series. Jerry McNeely! Now that’s a name from my past. In 1962 Jerry McNeely wrote the script for the 3rd television show I directed, THE MASK MAKERS. I didn’t meet him then, but that wasn’t necessarily unusual. As I’ve reported, I seldom met the authors of the scripts I directed. But in Jerry’s case, it was truly unusual. He was a college professor in Wisconsin and was pursuing his television writing career long distance. By 1975 he had migrated to the west coast and beside creating THREE FOR THE ROAD, he also was the Executive producer. I directed 2 episodes. They’ll be my next post.

The journey continues





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4 Responses to Creating a Series

  1. Vinnie Vinson says:

    “Three for the Road” reminds me of Michael Landon’s last project, “Us.” “The Incredible Hulk” borrowed its framework from “The Fugitive.” “Then Came Bronson” was like half of “Route 66.” I believe “Mad Magazine” called it “Route 33.” As an older viewer, I keep having the feeling I’ve seen something quite similar in the past. I guess it isn’t just a feeling!

  2. Jim says:

    Definitely looking forward to your follow-up post Ralph – I thought I was pretty TV savvy but I don’t remember “Three for the Road”……

  3. detectivetom says:

    I too am looking forward to another insightful posting.

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