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‘Encyclopedia of Television Pilots: 2,470 Films Broadcast 1937-2019’ (second edition; review)

Written by Vincent Terrace 
Published by McFarland Books


Vincent Terrace is an author whose books on television shows and history I first encountered probably four decades back. His books were some of the best available resources for any info on this sort of thing in those ancient, pre-web days.

And I absolutely ate up television history!

Unlike today’s youthful TV watchers who only care about what’s on or streaming at this moment in time, a large portion of my generation was desperate to find out as much as possible about what had come before!

With Terrace’s books, pretty much everything but actually seeing the shows was right in front of us. I must admit, however, that in these days of IMDB, I rarely have call to revisit the entire bookcase I have on television history.

When I can look things up quicker, faster online, and at least with a good chance of being accurate, why subject my aging eyes to having to dig through aging volumes of info.

In more recent years, Terrace has come out with more specialized books such as ones on mini-series, crimefighters, or variety specials. 1980s me would have devoured them, but 21st century me somehow didn’t even know they existed.

All that said, he has one now that is, if anything, perhaps more thorough than IMDB. More fun at least. That is Vincent Terrace’s second edition of his Encyclopedia of Television Pilots: 2470 Films Broadcast 1937-2019.

First of all, we all understand the term, “pilot” in this context, correct?

It’s when a one-off episode is made with the idea of selling it to the suits so they’ll make more episodes. Sometimes it’s just a scene or two; sometimes it’s a full episode; sometimes it’s an episode of an anthology series; sometimes it’s an episode of an already existing hit series presenting a new character for a possible spin-off; sometimes it’s a made-for-TV movie.

There’s a reason most don’t get picked up, but there are also some gems that make you ask yourself, “Why not?”

When I was a kid, the networks would sometimes try to make a little money at least on these shows by burning off sitcom pilots in the summer as “specials,” as opposed to “also-rans.” Over the years, quite a number of unaired pilots have popped up on the collectors’ market—even a bunch of comics-related titles that never aired or sold such as The Phantom and The Shadow in the 1950s, Archie in the early ‘60s, and Dick Tracy and Wonder Woman in the late ‘60s. Terrace has an entire separate volume on the ones that were made but never even aired.

But the ones that did air are just as interesting. At nearly 400 pages of double-column small print, I took my time reading this book, with each page having an entry or two more fascinating than the ones before it.

Just a few to whet your interest:

  • The Adventures of Con Sawyer and Hucklemary Finn starring 10-year-old Drew Barrymore from 1985.
  • Doctor Domingo was aired in 1974 as an episode of Ironside but starred Desi Arnaz, Sr. as a small-town doctor solving crimes.
  • America 2100 was a 1979 sci-fi sitcom from Gary Marshall starring Karen Valentine and the voice of Sid Caesar.
  • The African Queen from 1977 would have presented the continuing adventures of the characters played by Bogart and Hepburn in the classic film, here portrayed by Warren Oates and Mariette Hartley. Oates also took on John Wayne’s role as Rooster Cogburn in another pilot.
  • A Walk in the Night—Produced, written, and directed by Robert Altman, had this Chicago detective series made it in 1968, its star, Carroll O’ Connor, would not have been available to play Archie Bunker!
  • Sonny and Sam—Sonny Bono and Lee Purcell as a Mick and Nora-style couple, respectively a songwriter and a model, who solve murders as a hobby. Filmed in 1977 and unaired until 1981.
  • The Rowan and Martin Report, from 1973, was basically the “Laugh-In Looks at the News” segment without the catchy theme song and without any of the great Laugh-In cast except for Dan and Dick.
  • The Music Mart from 1980, produced by Lucille Ball and starring Donald O’Connor and Gloria DeHaven as a retired song and dance team who run the title store.
  • I can only assume that the 1992 Driving Miss Daisy pilot would have featured Robert Guillaume driving Joan Plowright somewhere different every week!
  • McMasters of Sweetwater from 1974 had the acerbic Jack Cassidy cast against type as a soft-spoken Boston schoolteacher who relocates with his family to Arizona at the turn of the last century.
  • Hercule Poirot in 1962 featured game show panelist and Broadway star/producer Martin Gabel as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective.

And there are thousands more here, all documented with air-dates, major cast, plot, and sometimes additional trivia.

The entries are alphabetical by title and there’s a massive 39-page index so you can easily look up your own favorites and see how many times they tried. Well, again, this isn’t counting unaired pilots, which would inflate that list even more for many but including them all here, too, would be impossible, with more than 2000 listings in this volume alone.

There’s a separate Appendix for back door pilots and one for just straight spin-offs, too. All in all, a fun, speculative time if you’re someone who loves television and relishes the curious failures as much as the crazy successes.

Booksteve recommends.


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