In his prime, Glen A. Larson could have sold a pilot for ice to the Eskimo Network.
The prolific producer, who died Friday at the age of 77, was not afraid of stretching the limits of physics and credulity in the pursuit of a hit series. He gave us K.I.T.T., the talking supercomputer car of “Knight Rider.” He gave us Steve Austin, the astronaut whose creaky atomic-powered implants gave him superhuman strength. He put Lorne Greene in a track suit and cape to lead “Battlestar Galactica.” And he sicced a mild-mannered NYU professor who turns into fierce animals on NBC with “Manimal.”
But even with a track record of success that also included “Quincy,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “The Fall Guy” and, yes, “B.J. and the Bear,” Larson had plenty of ones that got away. Culled from the pages of Variety, here’s a look at a few Larson pilots that never made it to series and some other short-lived efforts. Most of them did see the light of primetime eventually, airing as TV movies or busted pilots during off-peak periods.
- “The Wonderful World of Sin” — three half-hour pilots produced for NBC in 1973. The idea was to focus on a cardinal sin in each episode. The prototype half-hours dealt with sloth, lust and envy, with a cast that included a post-“Bewitched” Dick Sargent and Julie “Catwoman” Newmar. The pilots were eventually strung together and ran in 1974 as a telepic under the title “Fools, Females and Fun.”
- “Prisoners in Paradise” — a 1974 pilot for ABC. At least it was proposed as a pilot, before disappearing off the face of the earth (and the pages of Variety).
- “The Islander” — first developed for NBC in 1977, the project shifted to CBS and got made as a pilot but went no further. Dennis Weaver, who Larson worked with on “McCloud,” starred as a retired lawyer who buys a hotel in Hawaii. Bernadette Peters and Sharon Gless co-starred. The setting was clearly a warm-up for planting “Magnum” in the 50th state.
- “Fitz and Bones” — a series that lasted four episodes in 1981 that brought the Smothers Brothers back to CBS, in a detective drama that also starred Diana Muldaur and Roger C. Carmel.
- “Rooster” — a 1981 buddy detective vehicle for ABC starring Paul Williams and Pat McCormick, the notoriously out-there comedy writer known for his association with Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
- “Half Nelson” — 1984 NBC pilot starring Joe Pesci as a New York City cop who moves to Beverly Hills to break into the movies, but joins the force after failing to become a star. Dean Martin played himself. CORRECTION: As a reader notes, this did become a short-lived series in 1985 after airing as a TV movie.
- “Harper’s Bizarre” — a 1984 CBS pilot about a male model who spies for a covert intelligence agency. CLARIFICATION: This concept was adjusted slightly and became the CBS series “Cover Up.”
- “Free Spirits” — a 1985 CBS pilot about five former musicians who uncover the murder of a friend and decide to form a detective agency.
Yet the masterwork of busted Larson pilots has to be “Benny and Barney,” a 1976 effort for NBC that revolved around rookie cops in Las Vegas.
When it ran as a telepic (“Benny and Barney: Las Vegas Undercover”) in January 1977, Variety’s reviewer noted that the show bore more than a passing resemblance to ABC’s “Starsky and Hutch.” “Benny” was so bad, so riddled with cliches that it inspired the introductory disclaimer below from the critic ID’d only by the pseudonym “Mor” (as was the paper’s cryptic custom for reviews back then).
“One school of thought maintains that the worst examples of popular art become classics in 20 years, the implication being that judgment should be suspended on the junk-food diet of television lest some future cultural dietitian find it nutritious and delicious. If that dubious proposition holds water, then ‘Benny and Barney’ should be put into a time capsule along with a nomination for best potential for future schlock.”
Mor was undoubtedly comforted in later years to see “Manimal” consistently voted among the worst TV shows of all time. But Larson by his own admission didn’t care much for the opinion of TV critics. He kept selling, writing and producing shows into the 1990s — and laughed all the way to the bank.
(Pictured: Glen A. Larson in 1986)