Oh, Glen A. Larson, why can’t I quit you? I’ve talked before about why I find this guy’s TV-ography fascinating: though he created few true hit shows, and almost none of the shows he created were good in any objective sense*, and yet almost no TV producer has created more shows that found their way into the public consciousness. I’ve also mentioned before that there are two shows on the air today based on his creations, though both of them will end this year: Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica. Another recent remake, The Bionic Woman, had a sort of Larson connection, in that it was spun off from a show he produced and helped to develop (The Six Million Dollar Man). If you go through his list of credits, it’s astounding how many of them are still remembered today. McCloud (he produced and wrote most of the episodes). The Gil Gerard Buck Rogers series. Quincy, M.E. The Fall Guy. Nobody’s remade those yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Even his very worst shows are somehow memorable; Manimal and Automan were two of the worst shows of their era, but everybody who saw them still remembers them (I’ve checked). Bob Shayne, one of his writers, had some funny reminiscences about working with a TV mogul who took schlockola very seriously: “He was always spending unplanned money making changes he thought would greatly improve shows but that never did. He’d re-edit all night the day before he had to ship an episode.”
What makes his shows live on is that he was the ultimate high-concept creator; every show he did had some incredibly elaborate plot setup that may sound silly but also sounds intriguing. He clearly had a real, albeit strange, talent for coming up with premises that would resonate with viewers (and also cash in on whatever movie was big at the time); the reason Battlestar and Knight Rider got remade is that their premises are unforgettable, even if you can’t remember what happened in the actual episodes. And his shows often had interesting behind-the-scenes stories to go with their interesting premises, even if those stories were often tragic. His Butch Cassidy knockoff Alias Smith and Jones became legendary when star Peter Duel committed suicide in mid-run. And the show we’ll look at this weekend, celebrating its 25th anniversary, also suffered a famous mid-run tragedy. This was Cover Up, another one of those shows that ran only one season, has never been rerun anywhere in North America, and yet seems to be remembered by virtually everyone who ever saw it 25 years ago.
The premise is of course super-high-concept. Gorgeous Jennifer O’Neill (Summer of ’42) plays a gorgeous fashion photographer whose husband gets killed. She discovers that her husband was really a secret CIA agent. She strikes a deal with a handsome young Vietnam vet (Jon-Eric Hexum) to pose as her male model while they work together to track down her husband’s killers. By the end of the pilot, this becomes a permanent arrangement, with the two of them working together at her husband’s old job: using location photography as an excuse for going to the various exotic spy locations, they are sent on a secret mission and defeat bad guys every week. The usual mix: beefcake, cheesecake, explosions, car chases, the outskirts of L.A. posing as various foreign countries, and Vietnam war references. (Here’s a question: will Iraq war vets become as prominent on TV as Vietnam vets were in the ’80s? For many years any show could explain a hero’s action prowess by saying he was a Vietnam vet; I could see an Iraq or Afghanistan background being used in the same way, to explain why a seemingly ordinary guy can be an action hero.)
The extra ingredient added was copious use of contemporary music; this was one of two new dramas that season that took a huge step forward in terms of the quantity of contemporary hit songs on the soundtrack. (The other: Miami Vice.) Larson was, believe it or not, kind of a pioneer in this — every time someone went into a bar on one of his shows, there was always a real paid-for song playing there — but this show, in an attempt to attract some younger viewers to CBS, had several hits blaring in every episode. The theme song was a cover of “Holding Out For a Hero” (sung by E.G. Daily, who was dating Hexum at the time) and songs used in this particular episode include “Some Guys Have All The Luck” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You.”
The show was built around the two stars: O’Neill, who had been in many features and TV movies, and Hexum (best known today for his part in the show Voyagers!) who had become a hot property after the TV movie Making of a Male Model. The stars didn’t have much chemistry with each other — it was said that they came off more as mother and son than potential lovers — but they were both really, really pretty and the show seemed to do all right at first, another Larson cocktail of pretty people in outlandish situations.
And then toward the end of filming on the following episode, Hexum did something for which “stupid” is the harsh but appropriate word. He was holding a gun loaded with blanks and decided, according to eyewitness reports, that this would be a harmless way to play Russian Roulette. He took out all the blanks except one, spun the barrel, put the gun to his head, said “Let’s see what happens,” and pulled the trigger. The impact of the shot (not the blank itself, but the impact of shooting it at close range) blew his skull open and ripped apart his brain. A week later, he was dead.
What followed included: lots of discussion and soul-searching about the potential dangers of blanks. A negligence lawsuit against Larson and 20th Century-Fox by Hexum’s family, resulting in an out-of-court settlement. Controversy over whether CBS should, in the remaining episodes, leave in the shot of a gun firing when Hexum’s name was shown. (They did leave it in.) A hastily-filmed ending for the episode that Hexum didn’t finish, as you’ll see below; O’Neill talks to Hexum on the phone, the producers reuse some footage from a previous episode, and then the final wrap-up scene is done without him. And finally, the replacement of Hexum. Anthony Hamilton was brought in as O’Neill’s new partner; her character was informed that Hexum’s character had been killed, and after some mourning and an on-air tribute to Hexum at the end of Hamilton’s first episode, the show went on more or less as before. Based on the episodes I’ve seen, it was probably a little better with Hamilton, partly because he had better chemistry with O’Neill but mostly because the scripts got a bit better. But the show was canceled after one season. (Hamilton went on to star in the short-lived revival of Mission: Impossible, and died of AIDS in 1995.) Whether it would have done any better without the tragedy, I don’t know; Larson’s shows rarely ran very long anyway, so Hexum’s death probably just changed it from a two-year show to a one-year show. But for various reasons — Hexum, O’Neill, Hamilton, the music, the (albeit TV-budgeted) glitz and glamour, this show has something of a cult following even today, and sells for rather a lot of money on Ioffer. It will never be on DVD because of the music costs.
This episode is “Golden Opportunity,” the episode that Hexum was filming when he accidentally killed himself. It was written by Bob Shayne, whose interview I quoted before and will link to now. And to show you how old-fashioned assembly-line network TV used to work, this episode is actually a script that was written not just for one other show, but several: Larson wrote it for a show called Switch, it was adapted for unproduced episodes of two other shows before finally being used on Simon & Simon, and turned up again on this one. That’s one way TV has changed; you may see plots being repeated but not openly recycled from show to show.
So when again I needed to pull yet another show out of the toilet with a script to be written in two days, and since I so disliked the way it had been changed the previous time, I proposed to Glen we use the same basic story for “Cover Up.” It actually came out much closer than the original version on “Switch” than the intermediate versions had been. I set it in Florida and wrote it in two days. They started shooting it. The network demanded more violence. I added the scene with the blanks. And Jon killed himself with the show only partially filmed (on the first day I had taken off after working seven days a week since I began on the series). Ironically, the episode came out rather well, except, of course, it had a complete pall over it because of his death.
Part 1 (“I’m holdin’ out for a hero!”)
The rest of the episode, including “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and the post-Hexum’s-death scene, follows after the break (click on “CONTINUE” to see the rest). (Update: the original version of this post had a broken YouTube link. Fixed.)
Part 5, with the ending that Hexum didn’t live to complete.
*(The only really good show he created is Magnum P.I., and he didn’t really create that: his original pilot script was thrown out and a new show was written by someone else; Larson received co-creator credit because it was in his contract.)