Procrustes Comes to Syndication
February 25, 2012
Last week’s look at McCloud leads us into the murky waters of syndication for our sequel. During the seventies, the New Mexico marshal’s home studio, Universal, cooked up some of the industry’s most creative – one might also say mercenary, or repugnant – ways of squeezing some rerun coin out of its unprofitable properties. This second part of our McCloud coverage is the story of a show mutilated by its rightsholder, and rescued – four decades later – by an independent DVD label.
In the seventies and eighties, when made-for-television movies were some of the hottest properties on television, enough of them accrued for their owners to bundle them into syndication packages. These offerings were similar to the packages of old TV shows that cable and local stations could buy, except that they consisted of unrelated telefilms instead of episodes of a single series. They were a good fit for showcases like CBS Late Night and other time slots that regularly ran old theatrical films.
Once the made-for-TV movie proved its value in off-network reruns, the executives at Universal had an idea: why not create some “new” TV movies out of spare parts? The “parts” were series that had flopped after a single season, or less. Because the predominance of “strip” (i.e., five days per week) syndication placed a premium on long-running shows, these failures were perceived as having no rerun value, even if they’d been critical hits. In the seventies, Universal began to cannibalize these write-offs, sewing together two or more episodes of forgotten series, giving them a generic new title, and dropping them into syndication packages along with authentic telefilms. With few reference books and no internet to consult, unsuspecting viewers would recognize these hybrids as recycled television episodes only if they’d been among the few to watch the failed show when it was on the air. That these telefilm Frankensteins were incoherent and unsatisfying – instead of telling a single story, they put the characters through several abrupt, unconnected plots – didn’t matter. They added to Universal’s profits, without any obvious negative consequences.
Most of the series that Universal cannibalized for this program remain obscure today: Tammy; Mister Terrific; Pistols’n’Petticoats; The Outsider; The Psychiatrist; Matt Lincoln; The D.A.; O’Hara, U.S. Treasury; The Partners; Doctors’ Hospital; Man and the City; Paris 7000; Toma; Chase; Get Christie Love; Sons and Daughters; Lucas Tanner; Griff; Fay; Sara; Mobile One; Kingston Confidential; Gemini Man; Cliffhangers; Turnabout. But a few of them have since built up enough of a cult following that it seems surprising, in hindsight, that Universal would pilfer them in this way. When Kolchak: The Night Stalker first entered syndication, only fourteen episodes were made available; the other six were tied up as mutant telefilms. Alias Smith and Jones, the Roy Huggins-created western, also had some episodes turned into telefilm features and then returned to the syndication package years later.
The other studios “TV movied” a handful of old series this way – Fox (The Man Who Never Was and Blue Light) and QM (Dan August) – but mainly it was Universal that rummaged through the vaults with its extract-every-last-dime philosophy. And the hybrid TV movies were only the start. Universal went syndication-crazy in other ways, turning cross-overs into two-parters (a logical idea, actually, that landed an unsyndicated Owen Marshall in the Marcus Welby package) and attaching failed series to successful ones (the few episodes of the George Kennedy vehicle Sarge were syndicated together with The Bold Ones). The most invasive of these reworkings remains infamous among TV fans: Universal turned Night Gallery, the hour-long horror anthology, into a half-hour syndication package, slicing out large sections of the longer segments and adding stock footage to others to achieve a uniform length. Then the studio took The Sixth Sense, a one-season occult drama, edited its hour-long episodes down to a half-hour form, and married them to the recut Night Gallerys in order to hit the magic number (100 episodes) that syndicators supposedly desired. Night Gallery was restored to its original form for a home video release back in 1991, but the uncut Sixth Sense episodes emerged (on the Chiller Channel and then Hulu) only a couple of years ago.
All this effort on Universal’s part ran counter to the creators’ intentions for these shows. “All the rhythms are off, and it doesn’t play so well any more,” said Night Gallery director John Badham in Scott Skelton and Jim Benson’s Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (Syracuse University Press, 1999). “On its own it was a very good episode and I was horrified when I saw it,” said Joel Rogosin of The Meanest Man in the West, which combined one of Rogosin’s episodes of The Virginian with one produced by another unit, in Paul Green’s A History of Television’s The Virginian (McFarland, 2010).
The man responsible for this butchery was Harry Tatelman, a Universal vice president whose department oversaw, among other things, the recutting of feature films to meet television censors’ requirements. Tatelman was a kind of self-hating corporate yes-man, an old-time Lew Wasserman lackey who had started with MCA as a literary agent in the forties. Tatelman left to produce feature films and some of the Warner Bros. westerns and detective shows in the fifties, returning to the bustling Universal shortly after MCA purchased the studio in 1959. “Lew made me crawl when I came back,” Tatelman said in Dennis McDougal’s The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood (Da Capo, 2001), but his fealty to the company was such that he had no compunction about hacking up other filmmakers’ work behind their backs. “The resulting pictures were not good, but Harry was widely praised by the financial people for his ability to turn otherwise useless film into money,” said producer and television executive Frank Price in A History of Television’s The Virginian. “By the time anyone had learned what had happened with the old episodes, it was pretty much too late to change anything.”
Although it likely turned a modest profit in the short term, Universal’s thinking seems totally backward in the current vintage television market. Short-lived television series have become marketable again on niche cable networks like TVLand, Trio, Encore, ALN, RTN, and MeTV; to some extent, they have even displaced played-out behemoths like Wagon Train or The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, which had so many episodes that some were omitted from syndication just to make the packages manageable. And while many remarkably obscure television series have enjoyed successful DVD releases, the made-for-television film has remained an almost wholly uncommercial prospect. (Only the Warner and Sony manufacture-on-demand DVD-r initiatives have, in the last three years, attempted to release vintage TV movies in any number.) Any number of the series that Universal once chopped up for TV-movie scrap have a hook that a licensor like Shout Factory or Timeless could use for a DVD release: Get Christie Love (blaxploitation); Mister Terrific (superheroes); The Outsider (Roy Huggins’s first draft for The Rockford Files); The Psychiatrist (early work by Steven Spielberg); and so on.
Here’s the best-case scenario with one of Universal’s hybrid TV movies: Two episodes of a series are glued together but remain essentially uncut, with only the title sequences replaced. (Of course, for historians like myself, the removal of the original credits is already a disastrous consequence.) But it could get much worse.
That’s what brings us to McCloud, which, as a successful, long-running series, would seem to be immune to this indignity. But McCloud had a pre-history that the other NBC Mystery Movie wheel shows didn’t. While Columbo and McMillan and Wife debuted as ninety-minute shows in 1971, McCloud had spent its freshman year as part of Four-in-One, an earlier, unsuccessful alternating-series concept. Instead of taking turns, the four shows under this umbrella (the others were Night Gallery, The Psychiatrist, and San Francisco International Airport) would each broadcast six consecutive episodes and then cede the time slot to the next one. The Four-in-One shows were all an hour in length, which meant that the six 1970 McCloud segments were too short to fit into the same syndication package as the feature-length episodes (which ultimately numbered forty, counting the pilot).
The obvious solution was for the Tatelman unit to glue the hour-long McClouds together into three new segments – The Man From Taos, Manhattan Manhunt, and Murder Arena. (Was someone at Universal having fun with alliteration?) Instead of simply fitting two episodes back-to-back, these hybrid McClouds intercut between them, to give the impression that Marshal McCloud was solving two crimes at once. (This was possible only because Dennis Weaver wore the same brown coat and cowboy hat in almost every scene.) In an odd way, the recut McClouds anticipated the serial cop shows of the eighties and beyond – real cops do work more than one case at the same time. But the patchwork syndication edits could not balance the dramatic highs and lows of the originals, and the results were schizoid and semi-coherent.
The toughest episode for Tatelman’s editor – and we know who he was, because the credits of the hybrid telefilms all list one editor, Jean-Jacques Berthelot, whose name does not appear on the hour-long segments – to blend with another one was “Our Man in Paris,” which saw McCloud kidnapped and sent abroad to deliver a package for some smugglers. Obviously McCloud couldn’t be on two continents at once. But a scene in the series’ first episode, “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City,” in which Chief Clifford got so riled up that he put the marshal on a plane back to New Mexico, gave Berthelot the airport segues he needed to drop the Parisian adventure right into the middle of the other segment. Overdubbing changed the bad guy (Carl Betz) in “Who Says…” from a blackmailer into the leader of an international smuggling ring. Hey, a villain’s a villain, right?
(Evidently Douglas Heyes, the writer of “Who Says…,” didn’t think so; he replaced his name in the credits with a pseudonym, “Matthew Howard.”)
The “Who Says…”/“Our Man in Paris” hybrid, The Man From Taos, was ninety-four minutes long (two hours with commercials), but the other two were intended for ninety-minute slots and totaled only seventy-three minutes each. That meant that, for those, some twenty to twenty-five minutes of the original episodes were excised. Manhattan Manhunt kept almost all of the Broadway murder mystery “The Stage Is All the World,” but discarded the lighter half of “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue,” which had alternated between a dark anti-drug A story and a comedic subplot about a mounted officer’s missing horse. Murder Arena combined “The Concrete Canyon” (a murder-at-the-rodeo story with meaty parts for an A-list guest cast) with “Walk in the Dark” (a Leslie Stevens teleplay, in which a Central Park stakeout took a backseat to McCloud’s romancing of a policewoman played by Susan Saint James) by making trims to each, which sent both plot-crammed storylines lurching forward at a jerky, breakneck pace. Clumsy voiceovers laid over awkward cutaways to inserts and extreme long shots – fortunately for Berthelot, McCloud was one of those “shampoo commercial”-era shows that relied heavily on telephoto lenses – created tenuous connections between the bifurcated plots.
The most pernicious aspect of these recut first-season McCloud episodes is that in some ways they have been accepted as the official versions. For instance, Wikipedia, TV.com, and Epguides.com all list the new titles as the primary ones. The Internet Movie Database describes “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City” and “Our Man in Paris” as “Part 1” and “Part 2” of The Man From Taos. That’s inaccurate not only because the original episodes are unrelated, but because they commingle within the recut version. The Man From Taos doesn’t have a discrete “Part 1” or “Part 2.”
For decades, the first six episodes have rarely been shown in their original cuts. When Universal released the first two seasons of McCloud on DVD in 2005, it missed the opportunity to restore the hour-long segments to their proper form. And that would have been that – most old TV shows get one shot on DVD, and no redos – if not for the heroic efforts of Madman Entertainment, an independent Australian label that licensed the Region 4 rights to McCloud.
When Grant Taylor, a DVD producer for Madman, asked Universal for the hour-long episodes, the studio informed him that they had no video elements for the original versions. But Taylor didn’t give up. McCloud was “a personal favourite,” he told me in an e-mail last year, and Taylor resolved to do the series justice. Since not only the American but also the subsequent British and Scandinavian DVD releases had sourced the first season re-edits, Taylor “kind of saw it as the last chance.”
Taylor commenced a search of Australian stations that had rerun McCloud, but found only the recut versions. On a trip to London, he mentioned his quest to a friend who recalled that a British broadcaster had shown the hour-long episodes many years earlier. Holding out little hope that the station in question had retained copies of the masters, Taylor checked with his sources there and learned that, “miraculously, all six were still in the vault.”
“We had dubs made and when they arrived at the office it was like the Holy Grail,” Taylor wrote in his e-mail. “I don’t think I had ever seen the original versions, and after viewing them it was like watching a completely different season. The episodes were so much tighter and made sense, unlike the bizarrely cobbled together feature-versions. We did a bit of audio restoration and then set about getting them out. To create a definitive release, we elected to include the syndicated feature versions as a bonus, allowing viewers to note the differences.”
The Madman set, which came out in 2010, really does make it possible to observe some night-and-day differences between the original McCloud episodes and the syndication versions. In general, the Four-in-One edition of McCloud was a quirkier, looser show, more sixties than seventies, more of a character-driven procedural and less the polished mega-mystery it became as part of the NBC Mystery Movie franchise. Much of the deleted footage is atmospheric: gorgeous second-unit Manhattan scenery (Universal sacrificed production value and time-capsule status when it recut the shows) and relaxed interplay between Weaver and the supporting cast. The first season of McCloud also had its own title sequence (kind of an ugly one), which disappeared after the show joined the Mystery Movie wheel.
The scenes that were cut for syndication – probably totaling close to an hour across all six episodes – have their minor surprises and delights. McCloud pitches pennies with street kids in “Walk in the Dark,” outshoots the chief on the firing range in “Who Says You Can’t Make Friends in New York City,” confronts hippies and a modern-day Lady Godiva in “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue.” Joanna Moore achieves a lovely, wistful camaraderie with Dennis Weaver in scenes excised from “The Concrete Corral,” and Leo Gordon’s cameo in Manhattan Manhunt becomes a meaty comic role in “Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue.” A number of other actors were cut out of the shortened versions altogether: Maggie Thrett and William Bryant (in “Horse Stealing”), Mwako Cumbuka (in “Walk in the Dark”), and Dennis Fimple (in “The Concrete Corral”). Doug McClure, then the star of Universal’s The Virginian, makes a quick, inexplicable in-joke cameo as one Gringo Fontana, which didn’t make the cut when “The Concrete Corral” was folded into Murder Arena.
So McCloud gets a happy ending on home video, one of which American fans may still be unaware. It gets better: in the U.S., Universal dropped McCloud after its first DVD release, but Madman has continued the series up through the fifth season. The Madman catalog also offers seasons of Ironside and Quincy, M. E. that aren’t available in North America . . . so if you’re placing an order, you might as well stock up!
Thanks to Grant Taylor and Ben Pollock at Madman Entertainment, and to syndication expert “Neil Brock” for sharing his research on the re-edited TV movie phenomenon.