Now Playing: CLIFF HANGERS!
I haven’t consciously been setting out to document NBC’s woeful late-1970’s prime-time schedule; it has just coincidentally worked out that way. As I wrote in my reviews of A MAN CALLED SLOANE, QUARK and DAVID CASSIDY--MAN UNDERCOVER, Fred Silverman’s lineup was really struggling in those days. To be somewhat fair, at least he was trying different ideas, and even if it was unsuccessful, NBC’s slate was much more diverse and unusual than today’s glut of cop, doctor and lawyer shows. I recall WHODUNNIT?, a mystery game show hosted by Ed McMahon where the contestants watched a murder and had to guess, “whodunnit?”; TURNABOUT, a sitcom where the personalities of married couple John Schuck and Sharon Gless were magically switched into each other’s bodies (a la FREAKY FRIDAY); MRS. COLUMBO, a bad idea for a mystery show starring Kate Mulgrew (STAR TREK: VOYAGER) as the way-too-young-and-normal formerly-unseen wife of Peter Falk’s classic Columbo character; and one of TV’s most famous “bad shows”, HELLO, LARRY, a sitcom with McLean Stevenson as a radio talk show host and single father of two teen daughters.
CLIFF HANGERS, on the surface, sounded like a decent idea. Kenneth Johnson, the then-hot producer of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE BIONIC WOMAN and executive producer of THE INCREDIBLE HULK, had an idea to re-create the juvenile fun and excitement of the old Republic serials that were most popular during the 1930’s and ‘40s. If you’ve never seen one, you owe it to yourself to try it, because the best serials packed more action and thrills into one segment than many contemporary films can in two hours. In a nutshell, serials were short films that played in theaters on a weekly basis in the form of chapters (serials are also called “chapterplays”). They usually ran anywhere between twelve and fifteen chapters, each being about fifteen minutes long, and each ending with on a cliffhanger--the hero’s car plunging over a cliff or the female lead trapped in a locked room with the walls closing in. And every week, you would have to go back to the theater to discover how the good guy got out of the death trap. Republic Pictures made the best serials, since it really seemed to care about its product, and hired the best special effects artists and stuntmen in the business. Chases, fights, high falls, gunplay--Republic really packed it into its serials, although Columbia, which made serials using Batman and Superman, and Universal (its FLASH GORDON may be the most famous of all chapterplays) made some good ones too.
Johnson’s concept was to make three serials for television and air all of them in a 60-minute timeslot. End each one on a cliffhanger, guaranteeing the viewers would return next week to see how the hero survived. A good idea on paper. The problem was that, by 1979, when CLIFF HANGERS premiered, hardly anyone under the age of forty remembered the good old days of weekly chapterplays (they mostly died out by the late ‘40s, although Republic still churned out a few cheapies into the early 1950s). More importantly, CLIFF HANGERS forgot that serials were all about action, action, action. The plots and actors were just instruments to get us from one exciting action sequence to the next. In CLIFF HANGERS, and maybe budgetary restrictions played a part in this, the actors did more chatting than running and jumping. Each of the series’ three segments ran about fifteen minutes, yet only a couple were set aside for the action.
THE CURSE OF DRACULA was perhaps the most popular segment of CLIFF HANGERS. It was the only one to finish its storyline before the series’ abrupt cancellation, but it was also the one least representative of the classic serials and the dullest. Count Dracula (Michael Nouri, soon to move on to FLASHDANCE) is alive and teaching history at a junior college near San Francisco, where he has compiled a small army of sexy young co-eds who have been seduced and vampirized by his bite. On his trail are Kurt von Helsing (Steven Johnson), whose ancestors have been chasing Dracula for centuries, and his fianc? Mary (Carol Baxter), who witnessed her mother’s death at the hands of the count when she was a teenager. One of Johnson’s gimmicks with the show is that each segment was joined already in progress, so Kurt and Mary have already set about destroying Dracula’s coffins (he can only sleep in a coffin lined with Transylvania soil, and he has several of them hidden all over the city, in case he’s still out and about at sunrise). Over the course of the series, Mary discovered that her mother (Louise Sorel), Dracula’s former lover, was still alive, and that she was herself attracted to the debonair count, who tried unsuccessfully to transform her into a vampire (it takes three separate bites to do it). The problem is that Gothic horror and edge-of-your-seat action do not mix, and audiences had little patience for the soap operatics and tame cliffhangers of THE CURSE OF DRACULA. Nouri is a pretty good Dracula, but Johnson and Baxter are very drippy romantic leads, never believable as lovers or as dedicated vampire hunters. CURSE ended in CLIFF HANGERS’ final episode in spectacular fashion, as Kurt shot Dracula in the heart with a crossbow bolt as the count’s lair erupted in flames.
THE SECRET EMPIRE is loosely based on THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, a 1936 serial starring Gene Autry as a singing cowboy who discovers a futuristic society underground that plans to conquer the Earth’s surface. A great idea, so Johnson cast handsome Geoffrey Scott as Marshal Jim Donner, who accidentally stumbles across the underground city of Chimera buried deep below Wyoming. Ruled by the evil Thorval (Mark Lenard), the Chimeran government uses a Compliatron to brainwash its citizens into total obedience. When it amasses enough gold to power the machine, Thorval and his council, including his beautiful daughter Princess Tara (Diana Markoff), plan to use it on the surface dwellers and control the entire planet. Donner hooks up with a handful of freedom fighters (one of whom is portrayed by future PRESS YOUR LUCK host Peter Tomarken!) in adventures that take place both in Chimera (represented by not-very-futuristic sets on the Universal lot and what appears to be a power plant) and in the desert (mainly Vasquez Rocks). THE SECRET EMPIRE screams out for more action, but all it produces are a few tepid laser shootouts in nondescript hallways, although one neat cliffhanger finds Donner trapped in a room with a slowly disappearing floor, under which lies a bottomless pit. Another cliffhanger featuring a giant spider is laughable even by ‘70s standards. THE SECRET EMPIRE has the best supporting cast of the series, including David Opatoshu, Sean Garrison, Carlene Watkins and a marvelously hammy Peter Breck as a greedy rancher who joins Thorval’s team. Also of interest is future HUNTER babe Stepfanie Kramer, who replaced Markoff in mid-series as Princess Tara. THE SECRET EMPIRE is the best of CLIFF HANGERS’ three segments, although it also appears to have been its least popular.
STOP SUSAN WILLIAMS is the only CLIFF HANGERS segment with no fantasy elements. Susan Anton, who had a very brief TV career as a musical variety star in the series MEL & SUSAN TOGETHER (yes, somebody had the bright idea to team up the leggy Anton and stuttering country singer Mel Tillis!) and PRESENTING SUSAN ANTON, stars as Susan Williams, a spunky newspaper photographer for a New York City paper who refuses to accept that her brother Alan’s death was an accident and goes poking around the mysterious circumstances. Jetting all over the country to Morocco, Rio de Janeiro, Kenya and Maryland, Susan teams up with a rugged soldier of fortune, Jack Schoengarth (Michael Swan), and discovers an international conspiracy plotted by Anthony Korf (Albert Paulsen) to explode a bomb in a mine shaft running beneath Camp David, the site of a conference involving a dozen world leaders. Susan finds herself trapped naked in a bathtub by a cobra, tossed into a lion pit, pushed out a window, and even trapped in a cave-in (filmed in Los Angeles’ Bronson Canyon, recognizable as Adam West’s Batcave). No question that the six-foot blonde Anton is an arresting sight, but Swan’s obnoxious hero, sporting an awful hairstyle and constantly spouting a series of putrid one-liners and nicknames, is a major turn-off. Despite the international settings, everything looks like Southern California, and even if you’re not a veteran serial watcher like I am, you’ll probably guess the twist early on. Ray Walston, Marj Dusay and John Hancock are also in the cast, and look for brief appearances by Fred Ward as a Central American bad guy.
Like THE SECRET EMPIRE, STOP SUSAN WILLIAMS was still in progress when NBC cancelled CLIFF HANGERS after ten episodes in May 1979. Universal edited together a movie for syndication called THE GIRL WHO SAVED THE WORLD, which used footage from all eleven chapters of SUSAN. CLIFF HANGERS ended with two chapters left in THE SECRET EMPIRE’s run, but one additional episode was compiled, I assume for syndication, which included the last chapter of SUSAN and the last two of EMPIRE. I’m not exactly certain where the final episode aired, certainly not on NBC, but it definitely exists.
Even though CLIFF HANGERS was a bomb (that didn’t hurt Johnson’s career; he went on to make V and ALIEN NATION), the idea is still good, and it seems as though it certainly could fly with today’s attention-span-challenged audiences. I’d certainly like to see somebody take a shot at it, even though it could be argued that 24 and PRISON BREAK are doing the same thing, but sixty minutes at a time.