Wizards & Warriors

Wizards & Warriors

  1. The Unicorn Of Death
  2. The Kidnap
  3. The Rescue
  4. Night Of Terror
  5. Skies Of Death
  6. Caverns Of Chaos
  7. The Dungeon Of Death
  8. Vulkar’s Revenge

The brainchild of veteran writer/producer Don Reo, Wizards & Warriors owes its birth to two primary influences. According to an interview on Wizards & Warriors fansite wizardsandwarriors.org, Reo was inspired by his son’s interest in Dungeons & Dragons, and at the time he was hardly alone; the game had already inspired an overwrought, cautionary movie-of-the-week, Rona Jaffe’s Mazes & Monsters, which warned against the game’s “dangerous” fantasy role-playing, but did at least serve the useful purpose of showing the world that young Bosom Buddies star Tom Hanks could act. Fortunately, Don Reo had something more entertaining in mind, which is where the other influence on his creation comes in.

Inspired by the “traditional fairytale with modern dialogue” twist of William Goldman’s novel “The Princess Bride”, Reo aimed for nothing less than bringing the feel of Goldman’s book to TV (years ahead of Goldman’s own adaptation of his book for the big screen). With costly location shooting and costuming, Wizards & Warriors was never going to be cheap, and it was doubly risky to build the show around a stylistic gag that the American TV audience hadn’t shown a knack for “getting.” Just a year before the show’s launch, the tongue-in-cheek Zucker-Abrams-Zucker series Police Squad had flopped in the ratings when viewers failed to latch onto the same brand of making-it-funny-by-playing-it-with-a-straight-face comedy that had made the same producers’ movie Airplane! a hit. Subtle, elaborately-constructed humor just wasn’t a diet staple of an audience weaned on laugh-track-drenched sitcoms.

Goldman was in on the joke, however – Reo consulted with the “Princess Bride” author on the tone and structure of the book so it could be matched in script form. (Even the “storytelling” framework of “The Princess Bride” is present in the two-part pilot, with the wizard Traquill recounting Prince Greystone’s adventures to a child; this element did not continue into the series proper.) Casting wasn’t a simple matter either; Reo and his casting directors ultimately settled on a proven combination of dramatic and comedic chops, in the form of an actor Wizards & Warriorswho’d had a rocky career. Actor Jeff Conaway had risen to public prominence in both the Broadway and Hollywood incarnations of Grease, and had since moved onto the sitcom Taxi, but during that show’s third season had been fired for a persistent drug abuse problem, an issue the actor had been battling since his teens. After Wizards & Warriors’ short stint, Conaway would work consistently on film and in TV, with his other notable genre credit being a lengthy stay aboard Babylon 5 in the 1990s as security officer Zack Allan. After struggling with drug addiction in the very public venue of the VH1 series Celebrity Rehab for several seasons, Conaway died in 2011.

Playing his faithful but out-of-shape squire was an actor well-acquainted with the comedy sidekick role, Walter Olkewicz. Julia Duffy, who would later gain fame in the ensemble cast of Designing Women, took on the role of the vacuous Princess Ariel. Possibly the most fortuitous casting was on the side of evil, Wizards & Warriorshowever: Wizards & Warriors brought Canadian actor Duncan Regehr into the public eye as the handsome but thoroughly evil Prince Blackpool; Regehr would become a frequent flyer in genre fare, from two iterations of Star Trek (a guest shot on The Next Generation and a recurring role as a Bajoran resistance leader – and Kira’s lover – on Deep Space Nine) to the short-lived original V series. And with mere hours to go before production on the pilot started, Richard Libertini bowed out of the part of Blackpool’s scheming wizard Vector, and the producers gave the role to one of the runners-up, Clive Revill, who had ample experience with the dark side, having played the voice and holographic image of the Emperor in the original 1980 cut of The Empire Strikes Back. (Revill has since been digitally excised from that movie as several successive revisions have replaced him with Ian McDiarmid, who portrayed the Emperor in the rest of the Star Wars movies.)

CBS immediately proved to be far from the show’s best friend. Irregular scheduling meant that the two-part pilot episode – originally written as a single script – aired as the second and third episodes, introducing characters that had already been seen in the first episode aired. Promotional support for the show, which aired as a mid-season replacement, quickly grew sparse as the network demonstrated its inability to get a handle on its new series: was it a comedy? Was it swashbuckling drama? Would anyone “get it”? Genre shows hadn’t fared well in prime time, with the costs involved making them risky propositions with no guarantee of a return on that investment. Warner Bros., producing Wizards & Warriors for CBS, found useful corners to cut – such as the strange but effective practice of editing unused footage from the big-budget Warner film Excalibur into episodes requiring major battle scenes – but the show was still costly to make. And in any case, the prime time schedules of years past were littered with the bones of science fiction and fantasy shows that didn’t last: Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and others had failed to consistently deliver the massive audiences that tuned in for their spectacularly expensive premieres.

After only eight weeks, Wizards & Warriors was also consigned the genre TV graveyard, a victim of soft support from the network, and possibly guilty of being slightly ahead of its time. (To be fair, the show’s inspiration didn’t set the box office on fire either: a few years later, The Princess Bride landed in theaters with a dull thud, only catching on once the movie was available for repeat viewing at home on videotape – an afterlife that, in the ’80s, most television series simply didn’t get.)

Don Reo would continue plying his trade in Hollywood, creating later hits such as Blossom and My Wife And Kids. With the interest in swords and sorcery waning with the brief, fad-like flaring up of public fascination with Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards was relegated to the status of “cult classic” and had seldom been seen since. Fans continue lobbying for a DVD release, though any such release is likely to be of the burn-on-demand variety, with the Warner Archive Collection service being the most likely source.

Earl Green