Friday, May 23, 2014

The 1985 - 86 TV Movie Season

Arguably, the classic era of the fantastical made for TV movie genre was all but gone by 1985. The archetypal models of monsters and damsels in distress had made way for more serious fare. That’s not to say 1970s TVMs weren’t topical, just the opposite in fact, but dramas and romance soon took over the slots that used to be filled by tawdry-esque telefilms with titles like Drive Hard, Drive Fast, The Woman Hunter and Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo in favor of the far more serious Victims for Victims, Two Kinds of Love and the terrifying-in-a-different-way miniseries The Day After. These films were a precursor to the true crime and disease-of-the-week movies that became more and more prominent on free TV in the late 80s and 90s. However, perhaps it is presumptuous to claim that the golden age had ended, when it may have simply meant that tastes were changing, because audiences were still turning their dials in droves. Ed Bark of the Dallas Morning News wrote about the most popular TVMs of the 1985/86 season in April of 1986. Taking the Nielsen ratings for the season, he compiled the top 10 list of the highest rated shows and then compared them to his personal favorites.

Surprise (but not really): Turns out there was lots of great stuff happening that season.

According to Bark (and Nielsen), reunion movies were big properties, as Return to Mayberry and Perry Mason Returns topped the charts for the season. Indeed, Mayberry (NBC, OAD 4/16/1986) harkened back to the 1970s TV-movies-as-an-event feeling, scoring 33.0 share, capturing 28.3 millions homes, and ranking as the then-7th highest rated TV movie airing ever.

But that was just one of two highly rated reunions, with Perry Mason Returns (NBC, 12/1/1985) landing in the #2 spot for the season, scoring a 27.2 share, with a viewership of something like 23 million households! The success of Returns encouraged Raymond Burr to continue on with a series of Perry Mason movies, and a total of 26 tele-films were produced between 1985 – 1993 (the last one airing shortly after Burr’s passing). You can pre-order a double disc of Returns with The Case of the Notorious Nun here (due out on June 10th), or you can order Volume One of the Perry Mason Collection here.

The other top rated films ran the gamut of drama, from deadly serious fare to the more soapy melodrama, and were as follows (in order of their Nielsen ranking):

Intimate Strangers (CBS, 1/1/1986): Terri Garr plays an American nurse who spends nine years as a POW in Vietnam. When she returns home, she finds her husband has moved on to a new life without her. Co-starring Stacy Keach and Cathy Lee Crosby, director Robert Ellis Miller is known for giving Keach his big break in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Nobody’s Child (CBS, 4/6/1986): Lee Grant is known as the cocksure, gorgeous redhead who wowed audiences with her strong characters. She is also an extremely talented director who took on some really interesting issues in her behind-the-camera-work. She directed this harrowing true tale of a woman misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, who spends two decades in mental institutions. Marlo Thomas starred and won an Emmy for her performance. Grant also won a DGA award for her unflinching portrayal of a system gone wrong. Nobody's Child is on DVD

Rockabye (CBS, 1/12/1986): The adorable Valerie Bertinelli plays a panic-stricken mother who must rescue her kidnapped child from a black market ring. Holy cats, this sounds awesome! Critics were lukewarm on Rockabye, but audiences came in droves and many still fondly recall this small screen melodrama.

Amos: (CBS, 9/29/1985): Kirk Douglas plays an ex-baseball hero who endures several atrocities when he’s forced to move into an old-age home. And, what Louise Fletcher did for mental institutions, the great Elizabeth Montgomery does for assisted living! Yikes! Nominated for Golden Globes and Emmys, Kirk Douglas was so moved by the all-too-ignored subject of neglect, he became an advocate for the elderly, even speaking before a Congressional committee! Go Kirk!

Mafia Princess (NBC, 1/19/1986): Susan Lucci puts in an early prime time appearance in this fact based account of the daughter of a famous Mafioso. Tony Curtis plays the ruthless father, and his character ages forty years throughout the film. Many critics felt this was Curtis’ best role in years and Lucci was perfectly cast. The real life daughter can be spotted in the communion scene.

Blood and Orchids (CBS, 2/23 and 2/24/1986): When I wrote about Battles: The Murder that Wouldn’t Die, I knew it was loosely based on a true story, but had no idea someone constructed an entire mini-series on the infamous rape case. Running at 240 minutes - over two nights - the cast is fantastic, featuring a young Madeline Stowe, Jane Alexander and a Kris Kristoferson, among many others. And interestingly enough, Jose Ferrer appeared in both Blood and Orchids and Battles, Who knew? Blood and Orchids is on DVD.

Stone Pillow (CBS, 10/5/1985): Lucille Ball garnered a lot of press for this popular TVM by putting in a dramatic turn as a New York City bag lady who teaches a young Daphne Zuniga about life on the streets. Ball really threw herself into the part, losing 23 pounds during filming and she also suffered from dehydration because the film shot in the summer months, and Ball had to wear several layers of clothing. Rose Leiman Goldemberg, who had won acclaim for her screenplay The Burning Bed, wrote the script. The Stone Pillow is on DVD.

An Early Frost (NBC, 11/11/1985): Sometimes the small screen gets there first. An Early Frost was the first major film to deal with the AIDS virus, portraying the anguish of an All American Family who must endure losing their son to the horrible disease. This tele-film was the talk of the town at the Emmy Awards, garnering 14 nominations. Sylvia Sidney won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the understanding grandmother. An Early Frost is a milestone film that has stood the test of time (and it's on DVD).

Bark noted that only two theatrical airings broke the top 10 in the Nielsens: Mr. Mom and 48 Hours. And, if you’re interested, the cult classic Diner ranked as the lowest rated theatrical movie airing of the season (boo). The lack of strong big screen representation in the ratings showcases our desire to see original programming on our TVs. And, apparently, there was a lot to choose from. Aside from the films mentioned above, Bark was partial to the following (listed in order order Bark listed them):

Love is Never Silent (NBC, 12/9/1985): A tear-jerking Hallmark Hall of Fame flick, Silent is about a young woman during the Depression who must learn to let go of her deaf parents and find her own way in the world. Mare Winningham played the daughter, and Bare loved her performance. The co-executive producer Julianna Fjeld and three of the actors were deaf and many non-hearing extras were featured throughout the film. Mare Winningham was nominated for an Emmy. Silent is on DVD.

Between Two Women (ABC, 3/10/1986): Colleen Dewhurst and Farrah Fawcett go toe to toe as mother and daughter-in-law in what certainly has to be Must See TV! However, passion and anger subsides as Fawcett finds herself becoming a caretaker to the once domineering matriarch who has suffered a stroke. Geesh! A real pick me up! But talk about two powerhouse actresses joining forces to create a thoughtful and tearful TVM. Two Women is available on VHS.

Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (CBS, 3/30/1986): Director George Schaeffer quickly moved from The Stone Pillow to helm this sweet romance about a widow who remarries outside of her religion. Katherine Hepburn lights up the screen, and seriously, who wouldn’t want to marry the handsome Harold Gould? Hepburn and Gould were nominated for Emmys, and this movie is on DVD!

The Execution of Raymond Graham: (ABC, 11/17/1985): Under the moniker ABC Theater, the once-ballsy network put together a live telecast about the last hours of a man on death row. Jeff Fahey plays the condemned man, and both he and director Donald Petrie spent one on one time with convicts facing death sentences. The producers wanted this film to incite a conversation and placed the audience in a very uncomfortable situation. Execution is available on DVD and is also streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

Honestly, I thought Endor sounded goofy, but this guy is super cute! S.O.L.D.
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (ABC, 11/24/1985): (!) Despite airing the sequel to The Ewok Adventure during Family Viewing Hour, this TVM was still presented with a parental advisory. But that certainly didn’t keep Star Wars nuts - young and old alike - from checking out the newest Ewok offering. While some fans felt alienated by the Ewoks movies, most still fondly recall the cute little creature who help a young girl fight for her planet! Endor won an Emmy for special effects and also for Outstanding Children’s Program.

Alice in Wonderland (CBS, 12/9 – 12/10/1985): (!!) An all-star cast leads this popular adaptation, which was produced by disaster-master Irwin Allen. This version is highly revered because of its tireless efforts to remain true to the original Lewis Carroll story. And, check it, Red Buttons plays the White Rabbit. Must see TV, perhaps? This 1985 mini-series is available on DVD.

Doubletake (11/24 and 11/26/1985); Adapted from William Bayer’s popular novel Switch, Doubletake features the great Richard Crenna as a cop in search of a sadistic killer who murders a prostitute and conservative school teacher, decapitates them, and then switches their heads. Zoinks! That’s pretty dark stuff, but critics called John Gay’s adaptation “literate and well-written.” Crenna had just won an Emmy for this portrayal of the assaulted police officer in the groundbreaking TVM The Rape of Richard Beck, and saw this new role as “challenging” because of its running length, and he expressed concerns with how to keep the audience engaged over two nights. He must have made a good impression, because Crenna and his character from Doubletake, Richard Janek would show up again in six more TVMs!

The Last Days of Frank and Jessie James (NBC, 2/17/1986): Wow, the great Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson play Frank and Jessie James in this Nashville lensed Western. The story revolves around the outlaw brothers spending their last years as law-abiding citizens. Despite the box office failings of an attempted Western Revival in the mid-80s (Silverado, Pale Rider), the small screen attempted to keep the idea afloat with several TVMs, and Last Days was followed by a remake of Stagecoach and part 3 of the popular Gambler series.

While I admittedly haven’t seen as many movies from this season as I’d like, here are a few of my picks for the 1985 - 86 season (in order of original airdate):

Out of the Darkness (CBS, 10/12/1985): Originally titled Zigo’s Choice, Darkness chronicles the life of the detective who brought down the Son of Sam after his harrowing 13th month assault on the city of New York. Martin Sheen is Zigo, and while there is a focus on the procedural aspect of the film, it is really Zigo’s personal life, his desire to catch the killer and Sheen’s incredible performance that have made Darkness one of my favorite TVMs from this era. Darkness is on VHS.

The Midnight Hour (ABC, 11/1/1985): Yeah, you know about this one. A genuine cult fave among the tweens and teens of the mid-1980s, Midnight Hour is ghoulish fun. The story, which revolves around a small town curse come to fruition offered B movie chills for the TV14 crowd. The production designer from Michael Jackson’s Thriller is behind this film as well, giving the whole setting an MTV vibe. Pop Horror? Indeed.

 Bridge Across Time (aka Terror at London Bridge, NBC, 11/25/1985): I love this completely outrageous film because it’s played with such earnestness. Read my reviews of Bridge here and here. Bridge is on DVD and is streaming on Amazon and Hulu.

Sins (CBS, 2/2 – 2/4/1986): Holy cats, the glamour. Oh, the glamour! Sins was an epic three night mini-series about a down-on-her-luck young woman who works her way to the top of the fabulous world of fashion magazine publication. She uses her new-found power to exact revenge on the man who destroyed her family during her childhood. Sins was based on the novel by Judith Gould and crafted specifically for Collins, who produced the film along with her then-husband. She lurks around the frames in a number of gorgeous costumes, some of which were designed by Valentino. Collins is backed by a fantastic cast, including Lauren Hutton, Gene Kelly and Catherine Mary Stewart, among many others. Collins also starred in another mini-series titled Monte Carlo, which aired in November of 86 (and also featured Lauren Hutton). It was considered a fiasco, but I loved that one too. Sorry, I’m a sucker for the glam, baby! Sins is on DVD!

Betrayed by Innocence (CBS, 3/1/1986): Betrayed is a love story gone wrong, horribly wrong. Barry Bostwick plays a filmmaker who is having severe problems with his marriage. A gorgeous young woman comes into his life, and he initiates a passionate affair. The big problem is that Bostwick has no idea how young this lady actually is. Like, jailbait young (in fact, the VHS release was titled Jailbait: Betrayed By Innocence)! And her dad is a hard-nosed cop played by Paul Sorvino. This is total soap, and it’s wonderful. Click on title for full review. Betrayed is on DVD.

Dallas: The Early Years (of course!) (CBS, 3/23/1986): This was an epic, 3-hour movie that gave Dallas fans the backstory behind the Digger Barnes and Jock Ewing's feud. Narrated by Larry Hagman, this sweeping drama begins in the Depression era and moves into the 1950s. And wow, who knew Jock was that hot (Dale Midkiff plays him in this TVM)?!? The Dallas TV movies are available on DVD in a collection!

Beverly Hills Madam (NBC, 4/6/1986): OK, so this isn’t Chekhov or anything, but 80s glamour is glamour like no other, and Madam is drowning in all of its pastel glory! I’m not sure television got any more superficial than this, but let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good escapist TVM? Plus, the clothes and hair… I’m drooling here. Madam is currently streaming on Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.

The Deliberate Stranger (NBC 5/4 and 5/6/1986): Based on Richard Larsen’s book Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger, this four hour mini-series charts the life and crimes of the eerily charismatic Ted Bundy, who was on Death Row and expected to be executed the same week this aired (he survived that week but was eventually executed in 1989). Mark Harmon was disturbingly good in the role, and twisted all that good-guy charm into something far darker than many audiences may have believed Harmon was capable of. This film is sad and disturbing, because it is real. Sometimes true crime films are best when they are made for TV, allowing for some sort of restraint on the violence, which, if nothing else, protects some of the victim’s dignity. This was a huge hit, and rightly so. Even now, with Bundy just a dot in our rearview mirror, we still wonder how and why such a creature ever existed. Stranger is on DVD.

I think we can see that my tastes differ a bit from this writer and the public in general, but hey you gotta go where the heart takes you! That said, I adore Return to Mayberry, and find it to be one of the warmest reunion movies to ever air. It looks like the episodic 1985 – 86 season also had a lot to offer. Check out this list TV Guide compiled on the hottest guys of the small screen.


Wings1295 said...

Some great stuff. I was infatuated with Reunion movies of old tv shows as a kid. I loved the Bionic reunions and the Mayberry reunion. I wish all shows were obligated to do them. I have yet to see Perry Mason Returns, but am eager to see it. And the Dallas: The Early Years film was such a big deal at the time, at least to Dallas fans. I remember enjoying it a lot!

phairhead said...

Wowie wow wow! So many great movies and memories :D

Doug said...

I'm looking for a movie from 1985 whose promo said, "In the spirit of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome". Ring any bells?

Amanda By Night said...

I'm don't recall that tagline. I will post it in the facebook group this week and see if there are any bites. Here is the link to that page if you're not on it:

Hopefully someone can help!