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A Quarter-Century of Television Movies . . . : The Historical View : At times, the tube has tackled subjects too hot for the big screen

April 23, 1989|STEVE WEINSTEIN

Ronald Reagan's last film was supposed to be the first TV movie. But "The Killers," which also starred Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and John Cassavetes, was deemed "too violent" for television and was released in the theaters instead.

That left it to John Forsythe and his mobster chase drama, "See How They Run," to inaugurate the genre on NBC on Oct. 7, 1964. A month later, NBC was back with "The Hanged Man," starring Robert Culp and Vera Miles, and a new industry was born.

Nearly 2,500 films have followed. They've ranged from Vanna White in "The Goddess of Love" to Jason Robards in "The Day After," from Karen Valentine in "The Girl Who Came Gift-Wrapped" to Cicely Tyson in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," from Robert Conrad and Buddy Ebsen in "Smash-up on Interstate 5" to James Woods and James Garner in "Promise."

You name the subject and there's probably been a TV movie about it: missing children, wife beating, the off-the-field-antics of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, the war in Vietnam, a mock invasion of killer bees, hookers, rape, nuclear holocaust, homosexuality, serial murder, AIDS, incest and homelessness.

Steven Spielberg got some of his first directing jobs in TV movies, including the well-regarded "Duel" in 1971. Patty Duke has appeared in 32 TV films. Aaron Spelling's recent CBS drama, "Day One," was the record 100th TV movie he has produced.

Good or bad--but always with the requisite number of commercial interruptions--the TV movie has become a permanent part of the television landscape. To commemorate its 25th anniversary, the American Film Institute will hold a luncheon Tuesday paying tribute to the form. ABC founder and former chairman Leonard Goldenson, who in 1969 made the "Movie of the Week" a fixture on the network television schedule, will be the guest of honor.

"TV movies have become a tremendously important genre," said Jean Firstenberg, director of the American Film Institute. "As the number of motion pictures for theatrical release was reduced, the opportunity to make motion pictures for the small screen was a terrific boon for film makers. It has become an important outlet for the creative community and a marvelous training ground for young talent."

Goldenson was not the TV movie's true pioneer, however. In 1964, Jennings Lang, then head of television at Universal, convinced NBC executives Mort Werner, then vice president of programming, and Grant Tinker, then head of the network's West Coast programming department, to try an experiment.

"There weren't enough (theatrical) features," Tinker remembered. "We had two movie nights at the time and we were eating up features. The thought was simply that television could produce movies for itself."

Universal produced three that first year, and the two that made it to television attracted enough of an audience to encourage the network to air more. "In those days, feature movies were not stopping on cable first, and so they did well (in the ratings)," said Tinker, who later became chairman of NBC and now heads up his own production company, GTG Entertainment. "And these television movies, which we made and cast with theatrical movies in mind, did comparably well."

These two-hour films, billed by NBC as "World Premieres," aired sporadically over the next five years. ABC broadcast its first made-for-TV movie, "Scalplock," in 1966, and many of the TV films that aired during the form's first several years were actually pilots for proposed television series. (Many still are today.)

The genre didn't really take off until a young ABC executive named Barry Diller, now chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, came up with the idea of airing a new, 90-minute TV movie at the same time every week.

"Universal agreed to make them for $350,000 per movie," Goldenson recalled, "but when it got to (Universal boss) Lew Wasserman, he said, 'We can't make it for that.' He wanted $400,000 per picture. But Diller said he could get other studios to do it."

Diller recalled that "everyone" thought the TV movie would flop and that all of the studios were reluctant to make movies for his network, fearing they would be competing even more directly with their theatrical motion pictures. But Diller succeeded because most of the studios were equally afraid not to get into the game--afraid that if the genre did succeed, they would be shut out in the future. ABC also set up its own in-house production unit and went into partnership with various producers such as Spelling.

The network premiered its "Tuesday Night Movie of the Week" in the fall of 1969 with "Seven in Darkness," a plane-crash drama starring Milton Berle, and after the network's first few films drew big audiences, the studios were lining up for a chance to produce them.

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