Famous Directors’ Forgotten TV Projects


Following the career path of some filmmakers is fascinating. Many celebrated directors found their start in the world of television. Website Cinephilia and Beyond reminded us of those twists and turns when we spotted an Orson Welles pilot episode that aired only once. We feature it after the jump. The forgotten series reminded us that there are many hidden gems amongst the credits of our favorite directors. We dug up ten TV projects from acclaimed filmmakers that have faded into the background, but are worth digging up for one reason or another — and many of them you can watch online right now.

“The Fountain of Youth” was the 1956 pilot for Orson Welles’ proposed TV series, The Orson Welles Show. The director was fresh off his success for the well-received Confidential Report (aka Mr. Arkadin) and 1952 Palme d’Or winner, Othello. The opening is similar to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with an introduction by Welles. Mixing on-screen narration (Welles, again), stills, live-action drama, and Welle’s signature editing style, “The Fountain of Youth” is a compelling, twisty tale about unrequited love, revenge, and eternal youth. It was only aired one time, but some kind soul has posted it on YouTube to enjoy. We would have loved to see Welles adapt more classic stories for the small screen.

Following the unfortunate cancellation of Twin Peaks, David Lynch created two television series that are worth seeking out for die-hard fans. On the Air reunited the director with Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost. The 1950’s-set series finds a TV network crew attempting a live variety program, The Lester Guy Show, but things don’t go as planned. There’s the usual straight-faced funny business, surreal shenanigans, slapstick humor, and bizarre characters — such as the twins that wander around chanting, “Hurry up.” The seven-episode series was sadly never broadcast in its entirety.

Following On the Air, Lynch joined forces with HBO for his limited series (3 eps) Hotel Room. Each vignette was set in a different time period (dating back to the 1930s), but the maid and bellhop never seemed to age. The miniature character studies are moody with twinges of Lynch’s dark, quirky humor.

Since we just spotlighted one of Woody Allen’s forgotten television film projects, we’ll focus on another made-for-TV movie Allen created — this one in 1994. Yes, the filmmaker who swore he’d never direct for the boob tube created a third version of his original play, Don’t Drink the Water. Allen’s Broadway show was a big success, but the film that followed in 1969 was miscast and a bit of a stinker. Jackie Gleason’s comedy style didn’t jibe with Allen’s repartee, for starters. Almost two decades later, Allen was retelling the Cold War story of an American family (Allen, Julie Kavner, Mayim Bialik) mistaken for spies when they wind up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Michael J. Fox was cast as the disastrous ambassador’s son (the dignitary was played by Josef Sommer) who attempts to help them. Oh, and Dom DeLuise played a priest who does magic tricks. The farce has some fantastic screwball moments. Naturally the writing is the TV film’s strongest suit. Here’s a scene that will probably require headphones due to low audio.

After the success of his Academy Award-winning drama Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis celebrated by directing… a Tales from the Crypt episode. The Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit filmmaker was one of several executive producers on the series, along with the genre vet Walter Hill, Joel Silver, Richard Donner, and David Giler. Zemeckis directed one of the most well-known eps of the series, “You, Murderer,” in 1995. Tales from the Crypt was one of the first series to feature “digital” actors — in this case, Alfred Hitchcock, briefly, and Humphrey Bogart. Both men had been dead for years. Robert Sacchi voiced the Bogart character. He played a criminal who gets plastic surgery and winds up being a dead ringer for the screen icon. John Lithgow, Sherilyn Fenn, and Isabella Rossellini seem right at home in the noir-style comedy.

It doesn’t get more early ’90s absurd than 2000 Malibu Road. Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Beals, Brian Bloom, and Lisa Hartman Black starred (natch) in the Aaron Spelling-produced soap opera, which was directed by none other than Joel Schumacher. The Lost Boys and Batman Forever filmmaker traded vamps and superheroes for a group of women with a dark past (a former prostitute amongst them). It was basically a prototype of Melrose Place, but that series didn’t have Poison Ivy-era Barrymore to help camp it up. Dig the hilarious softcore opening of the series, below.

These are the reasons you should watch the “Beauty and the Beast” episode of Faerie Tale Theatre:

1. Shelley Duvall is Shelley Duvall, but draped over a white horse. 2. Blonde Susan Sarandon. 3. Anjelica Huston as a wicked sister. 4. A creepy Klaus Kinski as the beast, but looking like a werewolf (and later, Siegfried & Roy). 5. Barbarella director Roger Vadim filmed it all (weird, right?) and basically copied Jean Cocteau’s version, which we’re totally cool with.

24 Hour Party People and 9 Songs filmmaker Michael Winterbottom directed the sci-fi children’s television series Time Riders before his big break. From what we can gather (there’s not much floating around about the UK program that Winterbottom would probably like to forget), it involves an accidental time-traveler (played by Haydn Gwynne) and a Victorian street urchin who go back in time to the English Civil War. Instead of the TARDIS, these Time Lords span the decades on a motorbike. They’re hunted by an evil Witchfinder General. Hats off to series writer Jim Eldridge for casting a woman in a leading sci-fi role.

Lars von Trier’s recent exploits have stolen the spotlight, but we’d love to check out his Danish TV series Lærerværelset (aka The Teacher’s Room). He created, directed, and wrote the “six-part experimental talk-show blending reality and fiction” in 1994. We know it wasn’t a success, but it sounds like a fascinating early project, before Von Trier’s Kingdom Hospital days.

Jim Henson started working on the series Dinosaurs three years before its 1991 premiere. Sadly, he never lived to witness the debut. “He wanted it to be a sitcom with a pretty standard structure, with the biggest differences being that it’s a family of dinosaurs and their society has this strange toxic life style,” Henson’s son Brian, Dinosaurs‘ executive producer, said. After the success of The Simpsons, a show featuring a family of anthropomorphic dinosaurs living in the modern world didn’t seem so odd.

In 1989, when Channel 4 was still weird, acclaimed director Peter Greenaway and artist Tom Phillips collaborated on A TV Dante — a retelling of eight of the 34 cantos in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Actors read lines from the epic poem, while experts offered “footnote” commentary. This was blended with various symbols and imagery from Phillips’ text-based paintings. It was a striking and innovative use of television as a medium itself, offering layers upon layers of visual language. Watch it on UbuWeb over here.