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.

James Bond and Brass Bancroft, separated at birth?

bond-reagan-comic

Dynamite Comics has been on a run publishing James Bond comic books of late. Dynamite announced its latest project, James Bond: Service to come out in May.

What caught the blog’s eye was the cover illustration (see above). In this version, Bond (particularly his hair style) seems to resemble former U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004). But not Reagan as president. Rather more like Reagan as he appeared in the late 1930s or early ’40s.

Ronald Reagan's title card in a Brass Brancroft movie.

Ronald Reagan’s title card in a Brass Brancroft movie.

Reagan was an actor before turning to politics. One of his roles was that of U.S. Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft in four movies in 1939 and 1940: Secret Service of the Air, Code of the Secret Service, Smashing the Monkey Ring and Murder in the Air.

Perhaps it’s coincidence. Perhaps the blog’s eye is a little off kilter. Judge for yourself.

 

Ronald Reagan discusses James Bond

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, president of the United States from 1981 to 1989. There’s plenty of debate even today about what Reagan’s political legacy means. We’re avoiding that, we just wanted to show this clip from a 1983 syndicated television special about the 007 films where Reagan made an appearance:

CBC’s video archives and James Bond

A friend of ours pointed us toward some Canadian Broadcasting Corp. video archives related to James Bond. The seven clips include an interview with Ian Fleming that aired a few days after his death in August 1964. Portions of it show up in extras in Bond film DVDs. Also there are videos about Sean Connery and the Canadian-born Lois Maxwell, who played Miss Moneypenney in the first 14 007 films.

And there’s an interview with Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman (the latter another Canadian product) in early December 1965 on the eve of the premier of Thunderball. Saltzman tells the CBC interviewer that “we’re creative producers” and not just businessmen. Broccoli says there are arguments “but something comes out of it.”

To view a menu of the archives JUST CLICK HERE.

UPDATE: While watching the Broccoli-Saltzman clip, near the end, Saltzman says the duo is ready for a Februay 1966 start of production for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and that the “Bond for 1967 will be You Only Live Twice.” Well, he’d end up being half right.

UPDATE II: The Lois Maxwell interview first aired in 1981, just before Ronald Reagan took office as president of the U.S. She discussed That Hagen Girl, in which she co-starred with Reagan and Shirley Temple. She calls the film dreadful but says she had good memories working with Reagan.

UPDATE III: Lois Maxwell says she’s certain Roger Moore won’t return as James Bond in the film that would be called For Your Eyes Only and that Eon “won’t have an old bag like me” play Moneypenney after the death of Bernard Lee. Wrong on both counts, not that we mind.

UPDATE IV: Lois Maxwell (as a businesswoman, not an actress) provided barriers to Detroit for the 1980 Republican convention where the GOP nominated Ronald Reagan for president.