They Can’t All Be M*A*S*H: 10 Failed Attempts To turn Hit Movies Into Hit TV Shows

Everybody knows M*A*S*H, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Alice (based on Martin Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE) were successful long-running TV series based on popular movies but there have been dozens of other adaptations that didn’t make the grade and are largely forgotten these days. For one misguided reason or another most of them barely finished out a season with only a handful of episodes airing and a few never made it past the pilot stage. Here are 10 of the most notable, or most amusing, failures to translate booming box office into ratings sensation:

1. Delta House (Based on NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE) (1979) As a mid season replacement that only ran 13 episodes, this actually had decent ratings but was brought down by battles with the network (ABC). Retaining several of the original cast members (John Vernon, James Widdoes, Stephen Furst, and Bruce McGill), Delta House had the impossible task of making gross out frat boy humor work in prime time with canned laughter. With Josh Mostel standing in for Bluto John Belushi (understandably too big and busy with SNL and The Blues Brothers at that time to do a sitcom) as his brother Jim ‘Blotto’ Blutarsky, the show was either too tame or too lame to catch on. Still it had its moments and it’s worth looking up on YouTube if only to see a young Michelle Pfeiffer (credited as “The Bombshell”) slutting it up on the Delta’s crusty couch. Also worth noting: John Hughes wrote 5 episodes.

2. Fargo (1997) This is odd indeed, a pilot directed by Kathy Bates based on the Coen Brothers classic with Edie Falco (best known as Carmella Soprano) in the Marge Gunderson role made famous by Frances McDormand. A few minutes are below and it’s funny to see Falco in the get-up and accent – comes off pretty SNL-ish really:

Despite that it’s not a bad clip. By the way it’s dated 2003 because it was aired that year as part of the now defunct Trio channel’s “Brilliant But Canceled” series. The episode looks like it would be a nice bonus feature on a future DVD and Blu ray edition of FARGO. Which brings us to:

3. Black Bart (Based on BLAZING SADDLES) (1975) As an extra on the 30th Anniversary edition DVD of BLAZING SADDLES this is a fairly unfunny pilot yet still a likable curio. Featuring Louis Gossett Jr. and Steve Landesberg in the Clevon Little and Gene Wilder parts respectively and an obnoxious laugh track (see also #1 on this list) this acts as further proof that a raunchy R-rated movie can not be successfully sanitized into sitcom fodder.

4. Parenthood (1990-1991)

This was actually a decent Thirtysomething styled show with a solid cast including Ed Begley Jr, Jane Atkinson, David Arquette, Thora Birch, Leonardo DiCaprio (!), and the recently deceased Ken Ober. Zachary La Voy and Ivyann Schwan reprised their roles from the film and Ron Howard executive produced. The show was written by Joss Whedon who, of course, would have better luck with future endeavors. In the last year a second attempt to adapt the 1989 movie has materialized with Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Craig T. Nelson, and Bonnie Bedalia. It’s only appearing on this list as a footnote to the 1990 version as it hasn’t aired yet.

5. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1973) I was unable to find any clips of this adaptation of the racy 1969 movie but the concept of sitcom-izing these 2 married couples struggling through the sexual revolution is baffling at best. Robert Urich, Anne Archer, David Spielberg, and Anita Gillette take the places of their big screen counterparts (Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliot Gould, and Diane Cannon) and Jodie Foster appeared in 2 episodes as Ted and Alice’s daughter but reportedly the show was too much titillation for network censors and not enough titillation for viewers so it was canceled after 12 episodes.

6. The Bad News Bears (1979-1980) This was one I watched as a kid. It was cute-crude rather than crude-cute like the movie (or movies – there were 2 sequels not to mention a 2005 remake) and Jack Warden actually was a good television replacement for Walter Matthau in the role of Morris Buttermaker. It lasted longer than most on this with 22 episodes but was cancelled just a few episodes into its second season. A pre-puberty Corey Feldman played one of the bratty Bears so there’s that too. Again it was hard to find any video proof of this show but I did locate this promo for its premiere coupled with The White Shadow:

7. Ferris Bueller (Based on FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF) (1990-1991) This one season NBC spin-off starring Charlie Schlatter is mainly remembered for being one of Jennifer Anniston’s first roles (she played Ferris’s sister Jeannie). That’s fine because little else about it is very memorable except that FOX had a competing show with the almost the exact same premise: Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. Parker Lewis brutally beat Bueller in the ratings and went on to last 3 seasons. Ouch.

8. The Player (1997) Very little information exists about this spin-off with Patrick Dempsey in the Griffin Mill role part that was played to perfection by Tim Robbins in the excellent 1992 film, but writer Michael Tolkin talks about it quite a bit in the commentary on the THE PLAYER DVD. Jennifer Grey and Jennifer Garner also starred. Definitely another one that would be neat to see surface someday.

9. Revenge of the Nerds (1991) As another lame pilot that wasn’t picked up this only makes the list because of the appearance of the rowdy Robbie Rist as Booger (played by Curtis Armstrong in the film series). Rist, best known as Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch but should be recognized for tons of other notable work (Mary Tyler Moore, CHiPs, The Bionic Woman, What’s Happening, etc.) plays up the weak material with gusto while everybody else fades into the background. Still, it’s a pretty sucky show as you can well see:

10. Herbie, The Matchmaker (1981) I saw this one as well when I was a kid and really didn’t like it – maybe I was getting too old for Herbie anyway but making the crafty Volkswagen racing car into cupid struck me as pretty stupid. Dean Jones, who was in 2 of the movies, reprised his role as Herbie’s owner and, uh, I don’t remember anything else. It only lasted 5 episodes so I doubt I’m alone. This clip featuring one of the worst theme songs in TV history doesn’t bring anything flooding back either:

Okay! So, that just scratches the surface as there are many more failed attempts to cash in on a movie’s success with an idiot box redux out there so let me know if you have any favorites. I purposely ignored animated adaptations (I just didn’t want to write about Clerks) but, of course, will welcome all comments about them.

This post is dedicated to Ken Ober (1957-2009)


More later…