|JOHN KENNETH MUIR's RETRO TV FILES|
|TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY
[1982 - 83]
A Retrospective by John Kenneth Muir
|In 2000-2001, Cinescape Magazine was running a series of retrospectives on classic/cult TV series called Vintage Vision. I wrote articles on Space:1999, Logan's Run and Star Trek: the Animated Series, all of which were published. Before this Tales of the Gold Monkey piece could be published, the magazine went out of business and was purchased by the new (and current) owners. Vintage Vision was no longer part of the format, so here, for the first time, is a look at my Tales of the Gold Monkey retrospective - John Kenneth Muir|
|John's Terror Television (A 2001 Booklist Editor's Choice) examines horror TV series that ran from 1970 - 1999, including Night Gallery, Kolchak the Night Stalker, The Evil Touch, Space:1999, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Millennium and more.|
|John's Analytical Guide to Television's Battlestar Galactica is a provocative (and controversial) examination of the flawed but fascinating TV classic. Click on the cover to go to McFarland and order the book!|
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The Fantastic Journey
Land of the Lost
Star Trek: The Animated Series
| If adventure has a name, it must be...Jake Cutter?
Don Bellisario is a name familiar to TV viewers the world over for his efforts on such popular series as JAG, Quantum Leap, Magnum P.I. and Airwolf. But back in 1982, Bellisario also created the lesser-known Tales of the Gold Monkey, an expensive, high-profile, action-adventure program set in the South Pacific of the 1930s. at the time of the show's debut on ABC, critics complained that the series was a rip off of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). On the tube, Gold Monkey had other problems, vying for ratings with another adventure program set in the 1930s, Bring 'Em Back Alive starring Bruce Boxleitner. Even though Tales of the Gold Monkey didn't survive its freshman season, it is today considered a cult classic by a dedicated and vocal bunch of enthusiastic fans.
For those who don't remember the series, a brief recap of the series premise is in order. The year was 1938 and heroic pilot Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins of Star Trek: the Motion Picture  and Seventh Heaven), his mechanic, Corky (Jeff MacKay of Black Sheep Squadron), and his trusted one-eyed terrier, Jack, face danger on the South Pacific island of Boragora from Nazi spies, the Japanese Empire, slave traders and even primitive natives. Jake's love interest is the plucky Sarah Stickney White (Caitlin O'Heany), a secret agent for the United States masquerading as a singer. Another ally is Bon Chance Louie (Roddy McDowall), the enigmatic proprietor of Boragora's most popular watering hole, the Monkey Bar. While piloting his beloved seaplane, The Grumman Goose, all across the Marivellas, Jake also butts heads with Kohi (Marta DuBois), a seductive Japanese princess, and her warrior protector, Todo (John Fujioka).
|Now, that premise doesn't sound much like Raiders of the Lost Ark, does it? Gold Monkey writer and director, Tom Greene, thinks not. "Don Bellisario pitched the idea to the networks before Indiana Jones" (in 1979, actually),"and it always perturbed me that people kept saying it was a copy of Raiders. Don had come up with the series concept out of productions he had already done, like Baa Baa Black Sheep and the films of Humphrey Bogart. Tales of the Gold Monkey was homage to those great Hollywood films of old. Don's a romanticist when it comes to Hollywood - he lives it and breathes it - and that's what Tales of the Gold Monkey was all about. It wasn't about money."
Still, Raiders was no doubt influential to Tales of the Gold Monkey in at least one respect. The name of the game in Hollywood is exploitation, if not downright imitation. Even today, if a hot property is released theatrically, TV viewers can be virtually guaranteed in subsequent seasons to see at least two or three programs of reminiscent content. "Ironically, the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, is, I'm sure, what finally got Tales of the Gold Monkey sold," Greene acknowledges candidly, "but they have little else in common thematically. For instance, the main character on our show was not an archaeologist."
Instead, Bellisario the film buff christened his Gold Monkey protagonists with the names of characters from Hollywood's golden age Series hero Jake Cutter was named after Captain Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger portrayed by John Wayne in the 1961 film western, The Comancheros. His profession as a small-time transport pilot was a reflection of Cary Grant's similar job in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).
Even Gold Monkey's sidekick Corky was designed as an amalgam of famous Hollywood character parts. "Corky was a combination of three characters in film history," actor Jeff MacKay describes. "One is Curly Howard of The Three Stooges, the second is Walter Brennan in To Have and To Have Not and the third is Thomas Mitchell in It's a Wonderful Life. Corky was the heart-of-gold, true-blue friend that the hero could always rely on, even though he had human foibles and weaknesses. You could count on Corky, especially for his heart."
As MacKay also recalls, Tales of the Gold Monkey originated because Bellasario had hit it big with Magnum P.I. and finally had the clout to create something different, something he could choose. "I first met Don [Bellisario] when we were doing Baa Baa Black Sheep and Black Sheep Squadron, and we became good friends. We played golf together, and after three or so years he was pretty beaten up by Magnum, and wanted to try something different. He told me about Tales of the Gold Monkey...we would eat sushi and discuss what my character would be."
The developing series was quickly proving to be an important deal for Bellisario because it was the first TV series in which he would receive sole 'created by' credit. "He really wanted to have the absolute best people he could get on the show because of that," Greene remembers. "I was doing Magnum and he called me into his office and said he was having trouble getting writers to see the show the way he did. And I came up with the idea, or Don gave me a one-liner, about a nun who was an old flame of Jake's. So I came up with the title ("Force of Habit") and wrote the show, and when I finished it I got a call from executives saying Bellisario wanted me on Tales of the Gold Monkey."
While preparing the series for its network run on ABC, the creative staff of the series moved into the old Alfred Hitchcock building at Universal Studios and began preparing what promised to be a difficult production. Though the series was budgeted at a once-astounding $900,000 per hour long segment, an entire island (and time period...) still had to be reproduced accurately and within budgetary restraints. To help assure quality, Bellisario's stable of regular talent was enlisted, including costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac (Battlestar Galactica) and cameraman Jack Whitman A second unit was assigned to film exteriors and the flying sequences of the Goose in Hawaii to provide further authenticity. And, on the issues of accuracy and quality, producer Bellisario, issuing directives from Hitchcock's very office, gave no quarter.
"Don's a perfectionist" stresses director Harvey Laidman, who helmed several episodes of Tales of the Gold Monkey, The Six Million Dollar Man and Knight Rider. "He has a very vivid picture in his mind of what he wants. It's generally the most ambitious way to get something done, and I think that over the years he's probably mellowed. But at the time we were doing Gold Monkey, I think he saw it as an action show and he wanted good, credible action that made sense. And if it didn't work, he would just blow his cork."
Greene likewise describes Bellisario as a perfectionist, and, like Laidman, appreciated that the producer had set the bar so high. "I learned an enormous amount from working with him. He [Bellisario] was not easy to work with, and he would rewrite this and do that, but every time he made a change or a suggestion, he would make the show that much better. He was the type of guy that would go out and reshoot scenes if he was unhappy with them. He's not a tyrant and the difference is this: Don has a staggering talent, and when someone has talent and drives you crazy working 24 hours a day, it's not about ego, but about the product. He wanted the show to be the best it could possibly be. It was never personal. It was always about the show, I did two shows for him, and he went through a lot of writers/producers. But Tales of the Gold Monkey was one of the best experiences of my life. Don's one of the last producers who make television like feature films, Every week on Tales of the Gold Monkey is like watching great 1930s features."
But feature film quality doesn't come cheap, and some Universal Studios executives were apparently terrified by Bellisario's appetite for high quality. "Universal was afraid of Don Bellisario," Laidman acknowledges. "They thought he would spend every last dime in their vault, and Don was a very formidable guy in person. Don Baer came on as producer, and on one hand held Universal at bay, and on the other tried to get Don Bellisario everything he wanted. I've never seen a guy put out the way Don Baer did. He was the unsung hero of Tales of the Gold Monkey."
Line producer Don Baer comments that Laidman is being "very kind" with his praise while confirming that his job was essentially to function as a buffer between Bellisario and Universal. "Bellisario is very creative and very demanding," he stresses, "but it wasn't difficult to follow him because I was having so much fun with the series and felt very much in tune with his thinking." That established, Baer also confirms that most of the controversies concerned money. "I know we exceeded our budget," he confides.
If budgeting was a stumbling block, casting the series also turned out to be a prickly matter. Actor Ron Moody portrayed Bon Chance Louie in the pilot for the series but because of conflicts on the set was not invited to return to the series. He was replaced when the show was picked up, MacKay affirms. "Roddy McDowall joined the cast, and that was because of Stephen Collins. He swims in the highest waters of show business society and was an old friend of Roddy's. He brought Roddy into it and the first meeting - I'll never forget it - I went into Bellisario's office and said to Roddy, 'I can't tell you how great it is to meet you. And thank you for bringing a decided feeling of class to the show."
McDowall fit in well with the cast, which MacKay describes as a very "tight knit" group. Collins also quickly won the praise of the crew according to Laidman. "I had actually given Stephen his first job in California, on The Waltons," he recalls, "and he was wonderful. I've known him ever since and I'm a great fan of his talent. I've been shooting episodes of 7th Heaven and we talk about Tales of the Gold Monkey on the set all the time. It's obviously his favorite production. I think it has a real important place in his life, and he went to a Tales of the Gold Monkey reunion in 1997."
Baer also describes the series' leading man as a hard worker and a genuine team player. "When we started to shoot the series, I took him into my office and tried to break him in about the challenges he would soon be facing. This was his first series and he had to pace himself to so many long hours and long days, but I'll tell you something - he handled it great." In fact, Tales of the Gold Monkey also turned out to be a rewarding personal experience for the actor, who met his wife, V's Faye Grant, during the shooting of one episode
In the early days of the series, even the title of the show was a source of debate. "Originally the series was called Tales of the Brass Monkey," Greene explains, 'but that was the name of an alcoholic beverage, so we had to change it to Gold Monkey. Bellisario always said the new title didn't make sense, but I always liked Gold Monkey better."
The expensive look of the series was a bone of contention too. Each installment featured special effects galore (including highly-detailed matte paintings by special effects legend Albert Whitlock), and sets that recreated the world of the 1930s. "To achieve that lush, photographic noir look of the show took time, as opposed to just flooding the stage with light," Baer explains "Period costuming takes time too, and of course, we had unique sets that had to be built relative to that period. With our show there was considerably more construction that went on, and we had matte and rear projection work too. We even had a dog to contend with."
Despite the difficulties, MacKay loved working with Roddy McDowall and remembers one encounter that epitomized the actor's kindness of spirit. "Stephen Collins and I were at Roddy's house and we went into his screening and memorabilia room. He had a glass display table and inside it was a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. Stephen has always been a baseball fanatic and he practically went gaga when he saw it. Without so much as a pause, Roddy just gave him the ball. He said, 'it's yours.' Stephen refused to accept it though, because it was such an overwhelming gift. Ever since Roddy's death, I've wondered what happened to that baseball. It deserves to be in Stephen Collins' hands because Roddy really gave it to him that night. I just hope it didn't end up on E-bay."
Another fondly remembered ally on the series was its canine co-star. Leo the terrier played Jack, the cranky old dog with an eyepatch. "That dog had more brains than any of us," MacKay reports of his scene-stealing comrade. "He was brought out of retirement to do the show when the dog who originally got the part died on the trip to L.A. Leo was very old when we did the series and there was no back-up for him. The fact of the matter is he was a house dog who would have preferred to sleep on his owner's bed all day, and he was brought out of retirement at a very old age to sit on this show. You hear about actors getting jealous of scene-stealing critters like children and animals, but this dog was a consummate professional and a total sweetheart."
Baer loved Leo too. "There was one scene on the show when Jack and Jake are captured on a prison island ("Escape from Death Island,") and the warden commands his subordinates to shoot the dog. As the scene was filmed, the actor ordered shoot the dog, and Leo's exposed eye widened like a silver dollar right on cue. I fell out of my chair over that."
Laidman laughs at such remembrances. "The trainer was always on the set, but to tell you the truth, I always gave direction directly to the dog..."
Despite such esprit-de-corps on the set, the series faced a dastardly opponent in its bid for air supremacy. The same season it was launched on ABC, CBS masterminded a counterstrike called Bring 'Em Back Alive, set in Singapore in the late '30s. It was also expensive, heavily promoted, and criticized as a Raiders of the Lost Ark Clone.
"I was very much aware of Bring 'Em Back Alive, because I knew the producer of the series, and its star, Bruce Boxleitner, was a good actor," Laidman recalls. In fact, the director might even have defected from Gold Monkey if given the opportunity. "I wanted to do the show, but it was gone before I could get anywhere near it."
Despite comments in the press stressing the hand-to-hand combat between the two World War II era adventures, Bring 'Em Back Alive was a casualty early, during the season's opening salvo. "I think our show was more fun," Baer declares with a hint of pride. "It had a lot of charm and we had a greater dimension to our characters. Unfortunately, with a series of that nature, you have to find an audience, and neither network was patient enough to generate one."
Still, Tales of the Gold Monkey survived an entire season, 22 episodes, and audience attention slowly began to build. In no small part, that was probably due to the increasing boldness of the series' writers, who kept piling on more action, and more expensive stunts. Greene gleefully reminisces about one such inspiration. "One of the last episodes we did was "Boragora or Bust" about a gold strike and the whole thing had to do with a revolution. We had this magnificant stuntman, Richard Farnsworth's son, and I said to him, 'can you jump a motorcycle with a sidecar, like the Steve McQueen motorcycle jump in The Great Escape? He said he could, so suddenly I had this flash of Steve and Jeff in this motorcycle and side car, going over a collapsing bridge, and soaring over it. The next thing I knew, we had it in the episode!"
That kind of thing went on all the time, which is why, twenty years later, director Laidman still considers Gold Monkey the most exciting (and demanding) series he's been associated with. "It was a war movie every week. It had flying, which I loved, and we were in the Goose shooting process shots for two whole days on episodes. There were war scenes, battles, and I got to use vintage equipment. There was even one show with a China Clipper, but the production company just built a door and Albert Whitlock painted the rest of the plane around it. It was incredibly ambitious."
Unfortunately, Tales of the Gold Monkey had a secret enemy throughout its enire braodcast life. It weathered a sneak attack froms it very ranks, from HQ itself. "The network didn't like the lush look of the series," Baer reports. "They wanted it to be light and sunny, like a kid's show. They saw it as bright. The villains had to be clear cut and the very idea that characters might speak with foreign accents really bothered them. It was unbelievable. Everything had to be articulated and clear and the intrigue was not what they were looking for, so the show was considered controversial."
"Right after the pilot, we had a meeting with network staff in Bellisaro's office," Baer remembers, "and Don was reciting some of the developing story lines. We were all nodding our heads...it was great stuff. But the network staff just sat there and said, 'No, that's wrong. Don't do that.'"
And rather than encouraging Tales of the Gold Monkey to break away from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the network demanded commonalities. "The studio kept pushing for mud people and monkey people and other elements that would play up the similarities," Greene notes with irritation.
MacKay sheds some light on the conflict. "Back then, networks had personalities. ABC had an urban one. NBC was the father of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie, and was actually the perfect network for us. But we were stuck on ABC and it was a difficult marriage to say the least."
For Greene, it was an exasperating alliance. "We had to overload episodes with swearing so we would have grounds to negotiate with Standards and Practices," he relates. "We would trade them a 'damn' or 'hell' for something we wanted to leave in. During one episode, we had these gorgeous dancers doing the can-can and I offhandedly joked that the performers were not wearing underwear. Well, someone from the network overheard and thought I was serious. Before I knew it, execs were screening the can-can footage frame-by-frame to see if they could detect visible genitalia."
At the end of the first season, Tales of the Gold Monkey finally took the bullet that would kill it. In a move that surprised the industry, ABC canceled the series despite ratings improvements.
"Between the time we finished shooting the season and were waiting to hear about renewal, I had contacts at the other networks, and they all told me that CBS and NBC were programming against our show. The other networks were assuming Gold Monkey would be a successful part of the ABC line-up for the next five years or so. But ABC didn't have the same confidence in us that our competition did. The word asshole leaps to mind," MacKay comments angrily.
Laidman was prepared for the worst, however. "I specialized in shows that got canceled," he quips.
For his part, Baer notes that the only person who was more disappointed than he was when the show was cancelled was Roddy McDowall. "He was Bon Chance Louie. He couldn't wait to get to work, into his role, and he was just crushed."
Aware that, despite all efforts to stop the inevitable, the series would soon close down shop, writer Tom Greene prepared for a blow-it-out conclusion to Tales of the Gold Monkey. "I'd been working on Gold Monkey around the clock and one night I turned on the TV and fell asleep. Suddenly I woke up and saw Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy walking around our Monkey Bar set! I thought I'd gone nuts. Then I realized I was actually awake, watching a movie called Devil at 4 O'Clock." That film, concerning a volcanic eruption on a South Sea Island, was made in 1961, but Greene detected how it could add some visual effects luster to Gold Monkey's final show.
He continues: "The next day, I went to the art director, and he told me had had built our series sets based on old studio blueprints from Devil at 4 O'Clock. So I said, great, let's do a volcano show and the stock footage from the movie will match our standing sets. That's exactly what we did, in what was supposed to be the final episode, called "A Distant Shout of Thunder." When people saw it, they thought we'd spent millions of dollars destroying our sets when in fact it was just a perfect, magical blend of new footage and stock."
It seemed a spectacular finish to a spectacular series, but before long, the network struck again. "After we completely destroyed the island, ABC asked us to do one more episode," Greene laughs.
Today, MacKay remembers his days on Boragora at the Monkey Bar as the opportunity of a lifetime. "There's nothing an actor likes more than to divorce himself from the present and indulge in another life, another time. That's what Gold Monkey was. It's the tragedy of my life that the audience had more faith in it than the nework did."
Still, the actor takes comfort from what happened after ABC axed the program. "It aired in England shortly after cancellation and generated a substantial audience," Don Baer reports with pride. Reruns in the United States, on Nickelodeon and TV Land, likewise hinted at a diamond in the rough. MacKay is gratified to learn the series has a rabid following on the Internet too. "You read these e-mails from people on the web sites dedicated to the series and more often than not, they're saying the same things we said years ago. The show was a sleeper."
Laidman attributes Gold Monkey's popularity to its timeless tales of adventure. "I thought the stories were absorbing, interesting, and a little corny in a fun kind of way. Bellisario had a rough-n-tumble sense of humor that resonated with audiences."
Baer agrees. "It had the romance of the 1930s, the bigger-than-life hero with the leather jacket, and the elements of intrigue of that time period. It was a lot of fun. That plane [the Goose] was a magic carpet and it could take you anywhere."
(c) The Lulu Show LLC, 2004...
|John Kenneth Muir is the author of a dozen books in the fields of science fiction and horror film and television. His first original novel, the officially licensed Space:1999 adventure The Forsaken was published by Powys Media in early 2003. John's other titles include An Askew View: the Films of Kevin Smith, An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond, A Critical History of Dr. Who on TV, Terror Television, Horror Films of the 1970s and Wes Craven: The Art of Horror. John has written for magazines including Cinescape, Filmfax, Collectors News and Farscape: the Official Magazine. He has appeared on Sciography and Destinies: the Voice of Science Fiction. Visit him at his web site, or read his latest monthly column at Far Sector.|