Universal in the ’60s & ’70s: The Television Factory

 

Universal logo, circa 1960s

In the 1960s and ’70s, Universal’s television division was like a TV factory.

Its shows had a certain look, a certain sheen. Universal’s TV operation would help launch the careers of people such as director Steven Spielberg and writer-director Steven Bochco (who both worked on the same episode of Columbo).

Universal developed the concept of “the wheel,” where different shows rotated in the same time slow, or a series that had rotating leads. Examples: The NBC Mystery Movie (different rotating shows) and The Name of the Game (rotating leads).

Universal, of course, still produces television shows. It’s now part of Comcast as is NBC, where many Universal shows were telecast. But it’s not the same because, naturally, television has evolved. Still, it’s a worth a look back.

Origins: Music Corp. of America, or MCA, was a talent agency. But MCA saw the potential of television. It formed Revue in 1950 as a television production arm. It acquired the studio lot of Universal (then known as Universal-International) in 1958 and eventually acquired Universal itself.

Revue produced all sorts of shows: Westerns (Wagon Train and The Virginian), comedies (The Jack Benny Program, Leave It to Beaver, The Munsters), crime dramas (M Squad), and anthology shows such as Alfred Hitchock Presents (hosted by Hitch), Thriller (hosted by Boris Karloff) and The General Electric Theater (hosted by Ronald Reagan).

Eventually, all of its TV series were under the better-known Universal brand. The boss of MCA-Universal was Lew Wasserman, who became a major figure in Hollywood. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link, when devising the Mannix television series, came up with a character named Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella) who was modeled on Wasserman.

The Universal mogul apparently didn’t mind. After Campanella’s Wickersham character was written out after the first season of Mannix, the actor ended up as one of the leads on “The Lawyers” part of The Bold Ones, another Universal “wheel.”

Glory Days: Universal was a major supplier of shows for U.S. television. As early as 1964, it embraced the idea of made-for-television movies. Its first effort, The Killers, directed by Don Siegel, was deemed too violent and got a theatrical release.

One of the early TV movies was 1966’s Fame is the Name of the Game, starring Tony Franciosa as an investigative reporter for a magazine.

This would be the basis for The Name of the Game (1968-71), an early example of “the wheel.” Franciosa, Robert Stack and Gene Barry rotated as the leads of the series, which concerned the magazine empire headed by Glenn Howard (Barry).

A key figure at Universal television, who is not remembered much today, was Richard Irving (1917-1990), a producer-director. He oversaw a Universal Western series (Laredo), which aired on NBC from 1967 to 1967.

Irving also produced and directed the 1968 television movie Prescription: Murder, where TV audiences were first introduced to Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk). The same year, he produced and directed a TV movie with international intrigue titled Istanbul Express, starring Barry, Senta Berger and John Saxon.

Irving remained a booster of Columbo. He directed another TV movie with the detective, 1971’s Ransom for a Dead Man, which finally sold Columbo as a series.

The Universal TV operation cruised throughout the ’70s. In the early 1980s, it had another hit with Magnum: P.I. But things got tougher that decade. Universal excelled at one-hour dramas and TV movies at a time things were changing.

In 1990, MCA sold itself to Japan’s  Matsushita Electric. It would be bought and sold over the years before being acquired by Comcast.

3 Responses

  1. […] began his career at Universal’s television operation. He was the story editor for the Robert Stack episodes of The Name of the Game, a series about a […]

  2. […] designer also got a lot of television work. He was hired often by Universal’s “television factory.” As a result, the Universal shows he worked on had titles with a bit of visual […]

  3. […] Richard Irving was a major figure in the establishment of Universal’s television factory. […]

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