When television became popular, the Cassandras of days gone by predicted it would ruin the movies. “Nobody will pay money,” they said, “when they can stay home and get entertained for free.” These predictors of cinematic doom forgot several things:
1. People were already getting free home entertainment from that device called the radio.
2. People still had to buy a TV, so technically the entertainment wasn’t free.
3. The television screen is much smaller than a movie screen.
4. One day, some smart ass is going to figure out a way to make TV serve the movies and vice versa.
That last one is our list topic for today. There are over 250 movies that have become TV shows, sometimes decades after the original films appeared. This isn’t counting failed pilots like Blazing Saddles, which was set to star Lou Gossett, Jr. as Black Bart, or Beverly Hills Cop, whose failed pilot is so bad that LA folks are treating it like the TV version of The Room. The high number of pilots based on films made the relationship between movies and TV incredibly incestuous and oftentimes quite profitable. So today’s list is about movies that became TV shows.
Before we begin, I’ll tease that perhaps the Cassandras weren’t so wrong about TV destroying the movies. In a future list, I’ll ponder this by providing 10 TV Shows That Became Movies. They will all be possible contributors to the constantly whined about “Death of Cinema.”
Until then, here are the ground rules for today’s list: Since I only have ten slots:
1. I didn’t want ten obvious choices. This list has four.
2. The show had to run at least 5-10 episodes.
3. I have to have firsthand knowledge of the show, that is, it must have been seen by yours truly.
On with the show!
10.) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Joe Mankeiwicz’s 1947 romantic comedy about a widow who falls in love with the ghost of a sea captain starred Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney in the respective titular roles. It ends with the deceased Mrs. Muir joining Captain Rex in the spirit world. 21 years later, NBC revived Mrs. Muir and her movie, casting Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare (Devon on Knight Rider) in Tierney and Harrison’s roles. The show was a bigger hit with Emmy voters than audiences (Lange won two for her troubles), so NBC cancelled it. CBS picked it up, then also cancelled it. I remember watching repeats of this with my mother; as a kid I felt terribly protective of Hope Lange after seeing Crowhaven Farm. To date, I’ve never seen Mankiewicz’s movie.
The TV equivalent of Ron Howard’s excellent 1989 ensemble piece has been running on NBC since 2010. I’ve never seen an episode of this show, but before you start bitching about list rule violations, I’ll mention that I DID watch the 1990 TV version of Parenthood. Produced by Ron Howard, 1990’s Parenthood featured David Arquette, Thora Birch and Gatsby himself, Leonardo DiCaprio. I love the movie, and I liked the show. I was apparently the only one who did—the show was cancelled after 12 episodes.
Richard Roundtree’s Shaft appeared in three movies before showing up on CBS as part of a mystery wheel with Jimmy Stewart’s show, Hawkins. Imagine tuning in on Tuesdays and seeing country bumpkin lawyer Jimmy Stewart one week, and suave urbanite Shaft at the same time the next week. You’d be as confused as viewers back in 1974. Shaft may have been a bad mother-shut-yo-mouth for MGM, but punk-ass CBS bleached all that funky soul from the character. Still, I’ll take watered down Richard Roundtree over the remake’s neutered Sam Jackson any day.
7.) Bagdad Café
Percy Adlon’s wonderfully strange, slow and hypnotic 1987 oddity about a café in the desert starred CCH Pounder, Marianne Sagebrecht and Jack Palance. The 1990 TV show had fantastic casting—Whoopi Goldberg and dearly departed actors Cleavon Little and Jean Stapleton—but failed to capture much interest week after week. I recall the show’s subpar plots almost being saved by the talent involved. This is probably the most obscure movie to TV show incident I can think of—did anybody even see Bagdad Café the movie?
Alan Parker and Christopher Gore’s devastating yet triumphant 1980 musical has spawned numerous incarnations. There’s the hideous 2009 PG-rated remake, a reality series, an Oscar winning soundtrack, a title song that’s gonna live forever and, last but not least, a TV show that ran for 5 seasons. In 1982, Debbie Allen, Gene Anthony Ray, Lee Curreri and Albert Hague brought their movie characters over to the small screen, surrounded by newcomers populating other roles from the film. Like Shaft, Fame was considerably neutered for TV, but the musical numbers still had spark. It ran throughout my high school years and my first year of college, so I’m kind of partial to this series. Singer Janet Jackson made this her third TV show, and if you can sing the song she did on this show, she’ll probably lose control and stab you.
Before Polly Holliday told Vic Tayback’s Mel to “Kiss My Grits,” Diane Ladd and Tayback assayed the same antagonistic relationship in Martin Scorsese’s 1974 classic Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Three years later. screenwriter Robert Getchell brought it to CBS, where it ran for 9 years. Along with #1 on this list, this spin-off has the highest pedigree of all 10, with Linda Lavin replacing the Oscar winning Ellen Burstyn as Alice. Jodie Foster (in her first film with Scorsese) was nowhere to be found on the show, and Barry Levinson’s screenwriting partner Valerie Curtin was replaced by Sondheim regular Beth Howland. Howland’s Vera and Holliday’s Flo remain far more memorable to me than Lavin’s Alice, whom I always found a bore. Unlike everything I’ve listed before, you can still find reruns of this on basic cable.
4.) The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
Before Bill Bixby walked down the road to that mournful Incredible Hulk music, he was underscored by Harry Nilsson’s catchy theme song for The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Vincente Minelli helmed the 1963 film, which starred Glenn Ford as a widowed father taking care of Opie himself, Ron Howard. Until about 2 weeks ago, when Turner Classic Movies ran it, I had no idea this movie existed. WPIX Channel 11 in NYC fed me reruns, making Bixby’s face familiar to me well before he turned into Lou Ferrigno. I don’t remember too many plotlines, but I’m singing Nilsson’s “Best Friend” in my head right now. Wikipedia says a remake’s being made with Nicolas Cage, which is wrong for an infinite number of reasons.
3.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Josh Whedon’s 1992 horror spoof is a terrible movie (I gave it one and a half stars) whose only saving grace is Pee Wee Herman. Who knew that Whedon would turn this flop into a huge ratings bonanza 5 years later. Buffy the TV series made a star out of Sarah Michelle Gellar and ran for 7 years. How I Met Your Mother’s Alyson Hannigan, James Mardsen and David Boreaanz were also household names by the time Buffy slayed her last creature, with Boreanz getting his own spin-off. I cop to not really knowing what the big deal was, though I acknowledge some of the killer writing and Gellar’s committed performance. This show just wasn’t for me. Still, kudos to Whedon and company for pulling it off.
2.) The Odd Couple
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman are a case of TV actors hijacking the roles from their cinematic creators, no easy task considering they were filling the shoes of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Neil Simon’s classic play went from stage to ho hum movie version to hilariously memorable TV sitcom. Randall and Klugman were a perfect match, and it’s impossible to think of anybody else as Felix and Oscar. The show ran for five years, and spawned a TV reunion movie of sorts. The duo even did Simon’s original play onstage in the 1990’s after Klugman’s bout with throat cancer. One of my favorite TV shows, I can still occasionally find it where I originally did, on NYC’s WPIX.
You knew this was coming. Robert Altman’s excellent 1970 satire became one of the most beloved television series in history. Running for 11 years, M*A*S*H added asterisks to its title and 14 Emmys on its mantle. The season finale remains the highest rated TV show (by ratings, not viewership) in the history of TV. Like much of today’s cable TV series, M*A*S*H was unafraid to shock and jar audiences, pulling many surprises during its tenure. Anchored by Alan Alda, Jamie Farr, Loretta Swit, Harry Morgan and Altman’s movie holdover Gary Burghoff, M*A*S*H remains, courtesy of numerous reruns, in the hearts of millions of American viewers.