A couple of weeks back, while assembling our post on the shortest-running shows in TV history, we noticed a bit of a pattern: an awful lot of them were vehicles for movie stars, who keep getting TV shows even though their track record for success is surprisingly low. There are exceptions, of course, but more often than not, it seems that TV executives value the built-in recognition factor of a big star over quality writing and the kind of ensemble work that the best television thrives on. As a result, an audience may tune in for the first week or two, but if they don’t see big-screen quality right away, they tune out. We thought of this pattern again when we noticed the single season of ABC’s canceled Missing among today’s DVD releases — a show starring Ashley Judd, who was headlining very big movies just a few short years ago. Ms. Judd can take solace, however, in the fact that many a movie star before her has flopped on the tube; after the jump, we’ve collected ten of the most notable examples.
James Stewart The Jimmy Stewart Show, Hawkins
Our first three examples all come from the years 1971-72, when the influx of New Hollywood acting talents like Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and Ellen Burstyn sent a wave of old-school movie stars to the small screen — where they found little success. The ’71 season marked the first of James Stewart’s two attempts at television; The Jimmy Stewart Show cast the beloved actor as Professor James K. Howard, small-town university professor. The sitcom didn’t land, receiving bad reviews and cancellation after its single, 24-episode season. Two years later, Stewart tried again with Hawkins, a mystery series that ran on a Columbo-like rotation on The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies. Reviews were better this time around, and Stewart won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series. But ratings were poor, possibly due to its rotation with another mystery movie series that had (presumably) a very different target audience: the TV adaptation of Shaft. Jimmy Stewart is a bad motherSHUT YOUR MOUTH too, but Hawkins was gone after a single season.
Shirley MacLaine Shirley’s World
Shirley MacLaine was a three-time Oscar nominee in 1972, but she hadn’t had a hit in years, and she took much of the blame for the box office failure of her last big release, Sweet Charity. Shirley’s World, her first (and so far, only) attempt at a sitcom, ran on ABC, debuting as a midseason replacement in April of 1972. The show’s pedigree was flawless — it was from producer Sheldon Leonard, whose previous hits included The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Danny Thomas Show — but the ratings were low, and ABC declined to pick it up for a second season. Forty years later, MacLaine may have finally found television success: she’s slated to appear in the next series of Downton Abbey.
Henry Fonda The Smith Family
Fonda got the jump on his fellow film idols, when his comedy/drama The Smith Family premiered midway through the 1970-1971 season. Fonda played a police detective and patriarch of a large family that included a post-Andy Griffith, pre-Happy Days Ron Howard. This one took a while to tumble; it made it to a second, full season before ABC pulled the plug in spring of 1972. At that time, NBC president Ross Donaldson said of the movie-to-TV flops (which also included vehicles for Anthony Quinn, Tony Curtis, and James Garner), “I think we’ve all learned something. A big star name doesn’t mean anything by itself. Too often they had the wrong material or the wrong creative people.” But it didn’t take long for the networks to forget what they’d learned…
Richard Pryor The Richard Pryor Show
You might think that Richard Pryor would be a bad fit for network television in 1977, and, well, you would be right. The groundbreaking, controversial, and brilliant comic was as well-known for his mature subject matter and salty language as he was for his whip-smart material, but he proved that he could do network TV when he appeared as one of the first guest hosts for Saturday Night Live, and he proved that he could get ratings and critical kudos when he did The Richard Pryor Special? for NBC in May of 1977.
The network asked him to try his hand at a variety series, in the style of the special, and offered a lucrative payday, so Pryor gave it a shot. It was the last time he and the network agreed on anything. When they announced their fall schedule, they gave Pryor a double whammy — not only did the schedule the show in the 8pm “family hour” (against his explicit, contractual wish to air at 9pm), but they put him up against Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days, two of the highest-rated shows on television. To no one’s surprise, the ratings were a bloodbath, and Pryor found himself clashing with the network over content on a weekly basis — though he did manage to get some bold and funny sketches on the air. (Side note: a young Robin Williams was among the show’s players.) Shortly into the show’s initial ten-episode order, both Pryor and the network agreed to cut that in half and only make five episodes; for the last one, Pryor gave up on sketches and shot an hour-long combination of stand-up and Dean Martin-style roast that was far too profanity-laden to air. His experiment with television over, he turned his attention back to stand-up and film.
Robert Mitchum A Family for Joe
Quick, if you had the opportunity to build a television series around film noir legend and certified tough guy Robert Mitchum, what would it be? A hard-boiled mystery about an aged detective? A boxing gym melodrama? A dusty Western? What’s that, you say? You’d have him star in a sitcom where he plays a homeless man who pretends to be the grandfather to a bunch of orphaned kids? Well, good news: that’s what NBC thought too. A Family for Joe featured Mitchum as the titular Joe, who is given the chance to act as faux granddad to the Bankston children (including future Boy Meets World star Ben Savage and Juliette Lewis, who would co-star with Mitchum in the remake of his Cape Fear the following year). If it sounds terrible, don’t worry, it was; the show lasted all of nine episodes, but it left Everybody Loves Raymond co-creator Phil Rosenthal, who was a humble staff writer on the show, with some great stories.
Bette Midler Bette
Midler has proven to be particularly adept at recovering from career dips; her 1981 flop Jinxed! kept her out of the movies for five years, but when she came back, it was in a series of hits for Touchstone, Disney’s subsidiary studio for (gasp) grown-up movies. (Trust me, this was very scandalous back in the mid-’80s.) Her films were hit-and-miss in the 1990s, though, so she went to CBS in 2000 for her first TV series, rather unimaginatively titled Bette. She basically played herself, a beloved and “divine” celeb enjoying a life of luxury in Hollywood, and while her high-energy acting was (as ever) a blast to watch, the show was a drag. Reviews were mixed and ratings were miserable; the show ranked #79 for the season, and CBS pulled the plug after 16 episodes, leaving two unaired.
Whoopi Goldberg Bagdad Café, Whoopi
Whoopi Goldberg has made some puzzling choices over her long career, but few were more befuddling than her decision, in 1990, to star in a CBS sitcom based on an arthouse film from 1987. By this time, Goldberg was an Oscar nominee (for her debut film, The Color Purple), and had starred in several big-screen comedies. But she joined up for the show, with Jean Stapleton co-starring, and ratings were good enough for the first six episodes (which the network aired as a midseason replacement in spring of 1990) to warrant a second-season pick-up. But Goldberg quit nine episodes into season two, ostensibly due to creative differences with the show’s producers — though the unexpected success of that summer’s Ghost might have had a little something to do with it, too.
Thirteen years and many movies later, Whoopi was back on TV, with a self-titled sitcom on NBC in which she played a curmudgeonly hotel operator. The show was staffed with experienced TV talents, including Cosby Show and Roseanne producers Carsey-Werner Productions and 3rd Rock from the Sun creators Bonnie and Terry Turner, and NBC promoted the show heavily, positioning Whoopi as the heir apparent to Archie Bunker. But critics weren’t impressed, and audiences tuned out; it only lasted one, 22-episode season.
Richard Dreyfuss The Education of Max Bickford
Max Bickford was one of CBS’s great hopes for the 2001-2002 season: a high-powered hour-long drama, featuring not just the Oscar-winning star of Jaws, The Goodbye Girl, and Mr. Holland’s Opus, but Marcia Gay Harden, who had won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Pollock the previous winter. CBS plopped the prestige show into their juiciest time slot: Sunday nights at 8pm, between 60 Minutes and the Sunday night movie. Ratings were strong at first, but they dropped off substantially, and one month into its run, the show’s creators left, citing the ever-popular “creative differences.” CBS gave the series a full year to find its audience, and then pulled the plug in spring of ’02.
Christian Slater My Own Worst Enemy, The Forgotten, Breaking In
Few stars burned brighter in the 1990s than Slater — both onscreen and off. But he hit a bad patch of films in the 2000s (3000 Miles to Graceland, Windtalkers, Alone in the Dark, Mindhunters), and by 2006, he was starring in the likes of the direct-to-video sequel to Hollow Man. So he did the sensible thing: he went to television, first with well-received guest appearances on The West Wing, Alias, and My Name is Earl, then with his own vehicle. NBC went full-steam promoting My Own Worst Enemy, his 2008 spy show, but it was one of the network’s many misfires that season, and ratings dropping steadily with each episode. The show only aired nine times before NBC canned it. His next attempt came the following fall, with the ABC forensic mystery The Forgotten, and it did nearly twice as well — 17 episodes this time, but gone (and forgotten, ha ha) by the following summer. In 2011, Slater was back again, on Fox this time, for the comedy series Breaking In; it premiered in April, was canceled in May, and was then un-canceled in August. Its second season began in March of 2012; in April, Fox cancelled it again. We’ll wait until the end of the summer to determine if they were serious this time, and then we’ll look forward to Mr. Slater’s next attempt at TV stardom.
Jonah Hill Allen Gregory
Fox must’ve thought they’d struck gold when they signed Jonah Hill to develop and voice an animated comedy; he would presumably bring the audiences that had flocked to see him in Superbad and Get Him to the Greek, while the show could fit right in to their Sunday night animation block. Fox placed an initial order for seven episodes, and then upped it to 13 before the show’s October debut. And then Allen Gregory aired. Reviews were downright brutal: the AV Club called it “a misanthropic, sloppy mess” whose “hatred of its characters seems to be deep enough that it could be unsalvageable.” And viewers didn’t seem any more enthusiastic about it; its debut episode lost half of its Simpsons lead-in, and it was all downhill from there. Fox revoked the order for the back six and dropped it from their schedule after airing those initial seven episodes.
Those are just a few movie big shots who couldn’t make it on the small screen — who did we leave out? And whose TV stumble is most surprising?