Did You Watch The 1987 TV Pilot For The Spirit?

Friends, nine years after Superman made audiences believe a man could fly and two years before Michael Keaton would portray the Dark Knight in the box office juggernaut that was Batman – Sam J. Jones (Flash Gordon) donned the domino mask and brightly colored business suit attire of Will Eisner’s The Spirit in a TV pilot film. Featuring Nana Visitor (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Bumper Robinson (Transformers: Animated), Garry Walberg (Quincy M.E.), and Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia) to name a few – it was a fun if most assuredly cheesy attempt at bringing the iconic comic book character to the small screen in a regular series.

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My Grandfather and I caught The Spirit when it was originally broadcast on the evening of July 31st of 1987 on ABC. There was no way I was going to miss a comic book character TV movie – although I will have to admit I had only a passing knowledge of the comic book icon at the time. I could not know that eleven years later I would be able to ask Will Eisner in person what he felt about the television adaptation of his character – his response was genuine – that he wasn’t too thrilled with it. Although I should add that when I shared my memory of watching it with my Grandfather – he said that he was extremely happy to hear that the pilot generated such a positive memory.

I’ll leave the importance of Will Eisner to the comic book industry to those who are better equipped to speak on the matter. I can tell you that the TV movie for The Spirit was completed in 1986 – reading online it was meant to be broadcast in September of ’86 – but was shelved when there was a change in the staff line up after ABC was sold to Capital Cities Communications in ’85. The Spirit was aired thanks to comic book fans – as you can read in greater detail in this 2017 article by Mike Cecchini for Den of Geek – when a petition was started and signed by attendees of the San Diego Comic-Con in ’86!

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Directed by Michael Schultz (Car Wash, The Last Dragon) in 16 days, the teleplay was courtesy of Steven E. de Souza – probably best known for penning the scripts for the likes of Commando, The Running Man, and the first two films in the Die Hard series. So the TV movie definitely had more than a few scenes of the Spirit trading blows with the various thugs and henchman that crossed his path… as well as becoming barechested quite a bit in the one hour and fourteen minute running time.

At the moment you can watch The Spirit on the DC Universe app – although as I understand it you will be able to check it out on HBO Max next year after January 21st. It really is a fun movie – it might not completely stick the landing – but after watching the film you can’t help but wonder where the series would have gone if it had been picked up. While I am not attempting to be negative I will admit that I feel the 1987 TV Pilot for The Spirit is a far better version of the character than the big budget 2008 picture starring Gabriel Macht, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, and Sarah Paulson.

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Bringing Westworld’s Robots To TV…In 1980

Doing Westworld on the small screen is nothing new. Has the current version learned the mistakes of Westworld’s first venture into television?

An incredibly short-lived and obscure offshoot of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie Westworld, Beyond Westworld could just as easily have been made with no references whatsoever to the Crichton story. The only real connecting tissue between movies (if one is also countung the less-well-regarded 1976 big-screen sequel Futureworld) and series is that there are robots nearly indistinguishable from humans, and they’re made by an outfit known as Delos. In the movie, Delos is the multi-faceted robotic amusement park that goes awry, but in TV terms, Delos seems to be a corporate entity with almost limitless government security clearance.

Jim McMullan brings Westworld to the 1980 prime-time schedule with a bang

None of the movie characters are seen or mentioned in Beyond Westworld; Delos security chief John Moore and renegade Delos roboticist Simon Quaid are invented strictly for television, and the closest the TV series comes to acknowledging any specific movie character is a somewhat-lookalike robot gunfighter, played by an actor whose chiseled features only slightly resemble those of Yul Brynner. And more specifically, the robot POV shots and the depictions of the robot technology are more closely linked to other TV entities – i.e. the recurring Fembots faced by The Bionic Woman – than they resemble anything from Westworld.

Truly a show with everything but Yul Brynner

The series format, based on Crichton’s movie, was devised by writer/producer Lou Shaw, already a winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for a 1978 Quincy M.E. episode he had co-written. Shaw was a producer on that show and McCloud prior to being tasked with reviving Westworld as a TV property. Helping Shaw oversee the actual production of the series was Fred Freiberger (1915-2003), who had been the producer in charge of Star Trek’s final season (1968-69) and the second and final season of Space: 1999 – both much-loved shows on which Freiberger aroused fan ire by instituting changes both small and wide-reaching. With Beyond Westworld, Freiberger was in on the ground floor from the show’s inception, for good or ill. This series would be one of his final writing or producing credits.

Beyond Westworld’s robots tended to view the world like Fembots did

The stars of the series all had brighter futures ahead of them; Jim McMullan, barely allowed to turn in anything more compelling than a robotic performance himself, would go on to co-star in Dallas, while Connie Sellecca would graduate to The Greatest American Hero. Veteran actor James Wainwright (1938–1999) was a fixture of American TV, guest starring in countless shows from the late ’60s through his retirement in 1990. William Jordan, who had moved on to this show upon completing work on the NBC series Project UFO, also continued his guest-starring career into the 21st century.

Connie Sellecca looks like someone who needs to find an even greater American hero

Beyond Westworld was scheduled to lead into CBS’ Wednesday Night Movie in March 1980, where it premiered as a mid-season replacement, but even without extensive material documenting the making of the series, it would seem there were problems from the outset. Only five hour-long episodes (including the pilot, which had a different female lead) were produced by MGM, and only three of those were aired by CBS before the series was pulled off the schedule. Beyond Westworld’s problems may have been creative or budgetary, but in either case, they ensured that the robots of Delos had a very limited shelf life. The series was only issued on DVD during the build-up to HBO’s completely unrelated revival of the Westworld concept.

An original 1980 CBS promo for a show that was shut down like a robot gunfighter
Video courtesy robatsea2009

Westworld remained in the past until HBO revealed plans to launch a J.J. Abrams-produced television reboot in 2014. But even with the impressive creative credentials on display among the makers of the new Westworld, it too had its own behind-the-scenes struggles. Whether it’s the fault of robots or humans, nothing’s easy in Westworld.

James Wainwright (left) as the mastermind behind a total of five strangely complicated attempts to take over the world with Westworld’s robots. This article originally appeared on theLogBook.com, where you can also find a complete episode guide (including the shows left on the shelf by CBS).