Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 24, 2013
One of the best gifts I received during the holidays was a set of books that I’ve been eager to get my hands on, Michael Karol’s ABC Movie of the Week Companion and David Deal’s Television Fright Films of the 1970’s. I grew up watching and enjoying telefilms and last year I spent a lot of time revisiting some of my favorites. Today telefilms, much like direct-to-video movies, are often looked at with disdain and are considered unworthy of critical evaluation. But they frequently featured talented actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age such as Bette Davis, Ray Milland, Myrna Loy, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Melvin Douglas, Gene Tierney and Walter Brennan and were occasionally directed by noteworthy filmmakers including Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Don Siegel, John Badham, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and Curtis Harrington. These small screen films were usually made in just a few short days with very little money but the performances, writing and directing choices periodically elevated the material and many of the best telefilms are still surprisingly effective and entertaining.
As both Michael Karol and David Deal point out in their books, the telefilm really didn’t come into its own until the mid ‘60s. At the time television audiences were eager to watch major Hollywood movies in the comfort of their own home but the high cost of licensing them for TV made that difficult so the networks attempted to offer up their own entertainment in the form of made-for-TV movies. A few of the early successes that originally aired on NBC included David Lowell Rich’s SEE HOW THEY RUN (1963), Stuart Rosenberg’s FAME IS THE NAME OF THE GAME (1966) and Don Siegel’s THE HANGED MAN (1964). Siegel’s highly acclaimed remake of THE KILLERS (1964) was also made for television but the networks thought it was too violent to air and it eventually ended up being shown in theaters. A turning point in telefilm history came in 1969 when a young ABC executive by the name of Barry Diller convinced his struggling network that they could regularly produce their own quality made-for-TV movies by employing various production companies and tapping into the wide pool of available talent in Hollywood. ABC announced their plan on June 24, 1969 with a press release that read, “25 Original 90-minute Movies Made Especially for ABC-TV Comprise the Most Costly Series in Network History.” Barry Diller hoped that the ABC Movie of the Week would be “an excellent opportunity to further expand the scope of network television” but it was a risky move. Was there an untapped audience eager to see made-for-TV films? Would viewers stay home every week just to tune in? The answer to both of those questions was a resounding, yes! Diller’s ingenuity and determination paid off when ABC’s Movie of the Week turned the troubled network into a major ratings competitor.
When the ABC Movie of the Week debuted on September 23, 1969 the program featured a gripping computerized title sequence and a theme song written by the popular composer Burt Bacharach. The first film they aired was SEVEN IN DARKNESS (1969), a tense adventure thriller about a group of blind plane crash survivors who are forced to fight the elements and overcome their disabilities in order to survive. The film was directed by Michael Caffey who had made a name for himself working on popular television shows such as COMBAT! (1966), IRONSIDE (1967), THE WILD WILD WEST (1967) and HAWAII FIVE-O (1969) and it featured Milton Berle in one of his few dramatic roles along with Arthur O’Connell, Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Nelson, James Griffith, Dina Merrill and Michael Masters. One television critic writing for The Charleston Gazette at the time said, “ABC’s new series of 90-minute movies made for TV begins with a highly melodramatic tale. Although its plane-crash-survivor theme is familiar, the fact that all the survivors are blind people on their way to a convention adds an interesting gimmick to the film. Their efforts crossing dangerous mountain terrain is visually suspenseful, and on-location production is first rate.” I watched the film again recently and I’m not sure what the reviewer meant by ‘on location production’ because the film was clearly shot on Universal’s back lot but in 1969 that probably wasn’t immediately apparent. Otherwise the review is spot on. It is a surprisingly suspenseful debut with an unusual plot twist. Suspenseful productions would become a regular staple of ABC’s Movie of the Week as the series went forward and today many fans of horror films, mysteries and thrillers (like myself!) have fond memories of the series for that reason.
After the series debut ABC knew they had a hit on their hands and a built in audience that could be employed to test out future programming ideas. The network began using the ABC Movie of the Week to occasionally air TV pilots that would originally run as 90-minute films and would later be reworked into their own 60 or 30 minute shows if the ratings were good. Some of the network’s most popular and beloved television shows first aired as telefilms such as MARCUS WELBY, M.D. (1969), KUNG FU (1972), THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (1973), STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975) and THE LOVE BOAT (1976). One of the most critically acclaimed ABC’s telefilms was the heart wrenching sports drama BRIAN’S SONG (1971), which was directed by Buzz Kulik and starred James Caan as a football player who’s promising career is cut short by terminal cancer. His best friend, played by Billy Dee Williams, helps him through the ordeal and although the film eventually ends with Caan’s death, their inspiring friendship is what makes this telefilm such a memorable and touching achievement. BRIAN’S SONG was so popular that it was eventually released in theaters and won many awards including three Emmy’s and a Peabody. Steven Spielberg’s suspenseful thriller DUEL (1971), about a man (Dennis Weaver) pursued by a relentless truck driver suffering from a bad case of road rage, was another huge hit for ABC. Spielberg’s telefilm was so popular that it was also released in theaters and received an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Film Sound Editing.
During this period NBC and CBS continued to run their own successful made-for-TV movies but the popularity of the telefilm eventually began to fizzle out in the mid ‘70s as networks started to air more major Hollywood films. Telefilms also suffered from various production problems and budget restraints that made their output uneven and unpredictable. For every successful telefilm such as BRAIN’S SONG or TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), there were 10 more undistinguished telefilms that went unnoticed and had very little to offer viewers. In 1976 the ABC Movie of the Week officially came to an end but the network continued to air reruns until the early ‘80s and sporadically produced new telefilms. Today 1969-1974 is often singled out as the Golden Age of the telefilm because during this period many of the best and most notable made-for-TV movies were aired on television.
Last year I had a lot of fun regularly writing about various spy films in celebration of the 50th anniversary of James Bond. This year I thought I’d take a similar route and throughout 2013 I’ll be devoting a week each month to discussing the merits of one of my favorite made-for-TV movies from the Golden Age of the telefilm. I hope you’ll tune in and stick with me through the commercial breaks!
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