As TV movies emerged, first on ABC and soon after on CBS and NBC, the networks were inundated with ideas, treatments, news stories, books, and existing screenplays — some of which deserved to be made.
Each network developed its own style and formula for what began as 90 minutes and evolved into the standard of two hours. CBS and NBC at first were tough with "ripped from the headlines," socially important, current stories. ABC was initially light and fluffy and yet managed to elevate the genre with Buzz Kulick's groundbreaking "Brian's Song," which created (a) the bio pic (b) the sports story (c) the malady of the week. Ironically, these became the profile of the CBS movie.
Of course, the "accident" of David Wolper's "Roots" (with Fred Silverman running it each night "to get rid of it") changed the face of miniseries. NBC was all over the place, depending on who the movie chief was.
During the Steve White add Deanne Barkley years, NBC movies tried to have something important to say. The Lindy DeKoven and Tony Masucci years brought a bewildering sameness (blindly uninspired children-in-jeopardy week after week) and C & D level casting, production values and stories that turned audiences away with "didn't we see this crap before?"
NBC even turned over the actual production of a major portion of their inventory in a misbegotten deal with an indie O'Hara-Horowitz in which they made 34 movies for one third of the price of the regular TV movie. NBC used these pictures to bludgeon other producers crying for more money — but what they really accomplished with these horrendous cheapies was an end to TV movies once and for all.
Talk about killing the golden goose.
Cliches for topics continued to abound. One such cliche was the "outward bound" adventure.
Some troubled soul, sometimes two, sometimes a family, attempts a precarious adventure, either structured or not, that leads to a tragedy or a triumph, a fish out of water who proves he (she, they) can overcome.
Each week our development group was subjected to dozens of outward bound stories while most networks were resisting them. I was smug enough to believe I would never touch one until:
Sometime in the mid-80's, Parade Magazine, a Sunday supplement in over 400 papers, featured a cover story about a Tucson, Ariz.-based boot camp to rehabilitae troubled teens called VisionQuest.
Bob Burton, a former East Coast social worker who wore cowboy boots and an ever-present white Indian reservation hat, secured agreements from Arizona judges to sentence juvenile infractors to a boot camp he created after his own experiences convinced him that traditional delinquency programs did not work.
He named it after an ancient Indian tradition that required young braves to fend for themselves in the wilderness to achieve adulthood.
At the camp and on the program's grueling wagon-train treks, the more than 600 boys and girls experienced a no-frills regimen devoid of television, gyms and video games. They lived in tents, they chopped wood, they rode and cared for their horses.
"We don't rehabilitate them — we habilitate them," Burton said of his program, which introduces hard-core delinquents to positive experiences and physical challenges in the wilderness.
To me this was not only a movie for TV, but a potential series.
I tracked down Bob Burton and asked to represent his story. Then I bought two dozen copies of the Sunday L.A. Times, to have copies of the color cover photos. I sent them out to producer clients.
Burton wanted a deal with upfront money. Max and Micheline Keller of Inter Planetary (yes, we all hated the name) jumped into the fray.
As I was questioning where to bring this, and whether to involve our series department before attempting the pitch, I happened to read in Army Archerd's column in the Daily Variety that Michael Landon was vacationing with family right at that moment at the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii.
I wrote a pitch letter and, accompanying the actual Parade Magazine, sent it to Michael Landon (pictured right), in care of the hotel. They simply had to deliver it to him, I prayed.
NBC, like today, was once again in last place, no one presumably was watching. Other than Johnny Carson, Michael Landon was their sole attraction.
Michael Landon called from Hawaii. He said it was an ingenius move on my part as he had a troubled history with the agency. Early on in his career he had been a client and left with a bad taste. He told me when he would be return to the studio and asked who was involved. I told him a producer named Max Keller. He asked for the two of us to meet him at what was then the original MGM Studios in Culver City.
I loved visiting the old lots and especially the historic MGM. We found Landon sitting at a hardworn, beaten table surrounded by cables and camera parts. He was dressed in jeans and a burgandy, plaid, flannel Pendleton shirt with well worn cowboy boots.
If you didn't know the star of iconic series such as "Bonanza" and "Little House on the Prairie" or his evolvement as star-writer-producer-director, you would think he looked like one of the below the line crew, an image for which he aspired.
Landon discussed his excitement with the Bob Burton character as perfect for actor Merlin Olsen who Landon believed to be a potential series star. Landon asked for permission to send a representative of his production company to Tucson to meet Burton and crew.
I dared to mention our representation and Landon laughed. "You mean the almighty William Morris package? Well it appears I will be doing the heavy lifting, but if it's the price of admission for my company to do the show, I have no problem with your agency's involvement." As he continued, my excitement level rose as I envisioned the memo I would send out once back at my desk.
"Once we have a creative meeting with the VisionQuest people," he continued, " we'll set up the production of the show, probably by doing a two hour to kick it off and then a traditional one hour series, don't you think?"
I was touched that it appeared he was asking my opinion, but knew it was a rhetorical question.
Max Keller, who had been quiet until now, regretfully interrupted.
Laughing, he blurted "Hey, aren't you getting ahead of yourself? You got to sell it to NBC first and …."
Landon looked at me, at Keller and back to me, with an expression that clearly asked "who is this idiot?"
I turned to Max and said "if Michael Landon wants to do this show it's on the air."
"Other than Carson, Landon humbly advised the culturally challeneged Keller, I'm all they got."
With that we shook hands and departed.
In the following weeks Landon and I had several conversations, primarily about writers. I suggested several he knew and liked. He was very upbeat about our participation, saying that the last time he experienced the agency he never was on the phone with an agent assigned to him for more than two minutes. I truly liked this ultimate pro, the antithesis of so many series stars.
Which is why I guess I was so disappointed when he called to tell me the bad news.
Landon's series and movie development was primarily fiction based, the ideas coming out of his childhood and imagination. This was his first based on a true individual and active organization. It had to be vetted and not by any legal counsel but by the person Landon most respected, his daughter.
He sent her to Tucson to meet with Burton and crew, but also others. I believe, but have not verified, that she met with past campers, their families and took notes. She also met with Arizona journalists who had done investigative stories about the downside of VisionQuest and Burton.
While the worldwide media had been fascinated with the success stories, not all of the stories have been complimentary. California officials had denied VisionQuest a license to operate sites in that state, and a federal grand jury and two county grand juries had investiagted it. A group of California probation officers and the San Diego ACLU have opposed it.
The program had been sued by the parents of a California teen who died while participating.
In a five-month exploration of VisionQuest, the journalists found sharply mixed views.
Meanwhile juvenile-court judges, state officials and prosecutors often applauded the program as an excellent alternative for delinquents who otherwise might be placed in secure juvenile lockups or adult jails.
However, when the Landon "investigator" reported back to the "boss" and he studied her report. he decided to end his commitment.
He called to tell me. "I'm not saying it's bad or evil or corrupt or anything like that. It's just controversial and I don't do controversial. I know we can work on something else in the future. I enjoyed working with you."
Gracious, as expected, but the loss of a series to me? Crushing.
Without mentioning the NBC experience or missing a beat, I drove over to CBS and barged in on Bill Self and showed him the Parade Magazine cover story. He ordered a script.
We hired John McGreevey whose first draft, even depicting gang bangers transferred to a grueling wagon train across America, delivered a bland disappointment. Our only hope was a soon-to-air "60 Minutes" profile on this boot-camp-with-horses. A positive and visually exciting segment, it aired. CBS still passed on our VisionQuest. It was over.
Landon, in the meantime, put all his creative energies into a new two hour backdoor pilot called "Father Murphy" and, although he wrote 34 of the episodes in which Merlin Olsen starred, he called me to hire a client of mine when a story wasn't working and he admitted he "hit a wall."
A close associate of his sometime later suggested that Landon "never hit a wall or suffered writers' block," he was, in fact, the kind of rare industry power (like Jack Webb or Norman Lear) who enjoyed "paying it forward."
Then Michael created a two hour called "Highway to Heaven" which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in to became his most successful and beloved series. It was developed and telecast as a one shot TV movie.
I was in Steve White's office at NBC the day after the two hour "Highway" had been telecast and went through the roof. No one in the movie department had liked it and were terrified that it would bomb. White shook his head and laughed.
"No one should ever second guess Landon. "Highway" violated every rule of a television movie and the public still showed up. He's more than just a star and he knows better than any of us."
Sadly, this ultimate industry hyphenate passed at age 54.