Love and the Rejected Pilot (Encouragement for Creators)

Share

Sometimes a creator can have a great idea or produce a masterpiece, but still encounter rejection. Perhaps the timing isn’t right, or the wrong people are considering the material or, as in the case we’re about to share, the right people are considering your work but they just don’t get it or are too blind to see its merits. This is often true of television production. In fact, when it comes to programming for television, there’s often a good reason the TV is called the boob tube, and no, it’s not a reference to the viewers.

In 1970, successful comedy writer/producer Garry Marshall had a great idea for a new television series — at least, that’s what he thought at the time — about life and love in an innocent bygone time. Miller-Milkis Productions filmed a pilot for the new show, calling it New Family in Town. The parent studio, Paramount Pictures, was unimpressed, and the ABC network totally passed on the idea. No one at the time thought Garry Marshall would be able to sustain a comedy series so immersed in nostalgia for more than a season or two, at best; and besides, the decision-makers at ABC didn’t particularly care for the young man Miller-Milkis had cast as the lead. The idea for a series was shelved, and the network “burned off” the pilot episode as an installment of its anthology show Love, American Style, retitling the segment, somewhat ironically, “Love and the Television Set”! (Remember all those anthology shows that proliferated the airwaves from about 1954 through the early ’80s? Well, think Twilight Zone; except that during the last couple minutes of each episode of Love, American Style, instead of one of Rod Serling’s shocking twist endings, there’s just a lot of smooching and blushing.)

A year later, a pre-Star Wars George Lucas was casting American Graffiti, his humorous, uber-nostalgic film based on his experiences with fast cars and adolescence circa 1962. Lucas viewed Marshall’s unsold pilot and immediately decided to cast its star (what’s-his-name, the guy the ABC executives weren’t particularly impressed with) in the lead role of his new movie. When released in 1973, American Graffiti became an instant classic and proved itself to be box office gold! (So the actor, what’s-his-name, was vindicated. Yes, but that’s not our point here, nor is it the end of our story.)

Over at ABC, the suits were salivating. Legend has it that one of them remarked to an underling that the network should come up with a new nostalgic comedy to capitalize on the success of American Graffiti. “Run out and get someone to create a pilot,” he snapped.

The underling carefully told his boss that the network already had a pilot for just such a series: “And it even stars what’s-his-name from the movie!”

“Why haven’t I seen it, then?” barked his boss.

“But you did, your greatness!” [Okay, yes, we’re exaggerating here … a little.] “Don’t you remember? You shelved the project!”

We’re not sure if the poor underling kept his job, but ABC hurried the series into production, and a few months later, the ABC comedy Happy Days, starring Ron Howard, premiered in January 1974. The show was an immediate success and Creator Garry Marshall kept us laughing through 11 seasons. So much for being able to sustain a show about love set in the 1950s! Throughout the rest of the ’70s, the show was consistently ranked among the top 20 most-watched shows. Yes, it’s a silly sitcom, but if you were growing up around that time, you probably know how popular and influential it was. ABC spun off seven other series from Happy Days, two of which were also ratings successes. There also were books, comics, toys, and lunch boxes. (Now doesn’t every creator want to see his or her stuff plastered on a kid’s lunch box?!) And lest we forget, Happy Days is responsible for a few well-known idioms, such as “jumped the shark”!

From the 1970s sitcom Happy Days: (Right) Ron Howard as Ritchie Cunningham, with Ralph Winkler as “the Fonz.”

Moral of the above anecdote: Often, rejection is far from being the end of a creator’s journey! Wrong time, wrong place, wrong response; consider such things as just speed-bumps on the road to success!

Hey, speaking of love, St. Valentine’s Day is Friday. Come back and join us for “The Secret Origin of Valentine’s Day.”

“For the vision is yet for an appointed time. It hastens to the end and will not fail. If it should be slow in coming, wait for it, for it will surely come—it will not delay.” (Habakkuk 2:3 TLV)

Share