The “Movie of the Week” (MOTW) was a product of the need to feed the television networks with low-cost, original programming. Made-for-television films are still being made, but the heyday for them was the 1970s and 1980s.
The most famous series of films were made under the ABC Movie of the Week banner from 1969 to 1975, airing on Tuesday nights. The series proved so successful that a Wednesday night edition was added in 1972. These were films that aired in a 90-minute time slot, meaning they were really 72 or minutes of content.
TV Party has done a great job of presenting the origin of the television film, from the first made-for-television film in 1964 through the years. It is a good read for the broader made-for-television genre.
There are several fine books that do a deep dive on the ABC Movie of the Week, like The ABC Movie of the Week Companion, by Michael Karol. This book was a big help in the research for this blog.
The ABC Movie of the Week was designed to capture viewer attention. This was not going to be a fuddy-duddy program with generic graphics, music and content. The concept was to feature socially-conscious, ambitious, thought-provoking and daring stories, presented in a modern format. ABC has been the third place network since its inception, but with ABC Sports emerging under Roone Arledge, and a commitment to trendsetting prime time programming, the network struck a chord with audiences and desirable demographics for advertisers.
This new movie series started with riveting music. Instead of the generic orchestral elevator music, a Burt Bacharach song called “Nikki,” named after Bacharach’s daughter, was chosen and given a cinematic arrangement.
The opening title was developed using a camera technology developed for 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the graphic is placed on a moving slide in front of the camera. This was unique for television, it was stylish and modern, along with the music, it set the stage for the content of the films to follow.
During the ABC Movie of the Week run, there were some creative and very distinctive films that aired. It is interesting to read comments online by folks who remember certain films, particularly the horror/thrillers, which was very bold subject matter for the time.
There was a huge need for content, so many genres were tapped, and it gave opportunities for young writers and directors. Also, it allowed a place to work for many young and veteran television actors, as well as older film actors like Walter Brennan, Vera Miles, Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Dan Daily and Barbara Stanwyck.
I am somewhat limiting this blog to films made under the “ABC Movie of the Week” banner, but there were some important made-for-television films produced for the networks, some of which served as pilots for series like Dragnet, The Name of the Game, Columbo, The Night Stalker, The Immortal, Longstreet, Alias Smith and Jones, Toma, Starky & Hutch, Matt Helm, Swiss Family Robinson, Get Christie Love!, The Young Lawyers, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Rookies and Kung Fu.
In the six seasons of the series, there are some really fine films, certainly playing on social themes of the time, and many off-beat stories very suitable for the contemporary television landscape. As expected, there were some duds and the series even ripped off itself, recycling themes more than once. The supernatural and horror genre was one of the most popular genres tapped for films, and some of these were exceptional. The series also ventured into alternative lifestyles, and not just for young people. There were several films featuring adults looking for something other than the rat race. Changing social morals and roles, particularly the male-female relationship was a popular theme. The series looked at soldiers coming home from Vietnam and the difficulties of readjustment, as well as the controversial subjects of addiction, teen pregnancy and homosexuality.
Here is my list of memorable movies-of-the-week. There are many more worthy films not listed:
The Over-the-Hill Gang (1969) – Three retired lawmen are summoned by their old leader (Pat O’Brien) to help a town in trouble. Walter Brennan, Edgar Buchanan and Chill Wills are the retired Texas Rangers who gladly interrupt their retirements for some excitement. A charming Western that led to a sequel. Co-starring Andy Devine, Edward Andrews, Jack Elam and Gypsy Rose Lee.
The Challenge (1970) – Darren McGavin is a veteran solider, picked to represent the U.S. in a man-to-man battle with a Chinese solider (Mako) over the right to recover a space capsule. War is now between men, not armies. They will fight it out on a deserted island, but will both countries play fair? One of my all-time favorite television films.
Tribes (1970) – Another film starring Darren McGavin, this time as a Marine drill sergeant who is tasked with breaking Adrian, a hippie, and making him a soldier. This is clearly a battle of will. Also starring Jan-Michael Vincent and Earl Holliman. A great film about the conflict of cultures. Adrian is unlike his other recruits but over time, his methods and personality begins to rub off on them. Writer Tracy Keenan Wynn (The Longest Yard) won an Emmy for the teleplay. One of my all-time favorite MOTWs.
Crowhaven Farm (1970) – Horror and supernatural films proved a staple of the MOTW. Hope Lange and Paul Burke play a couple who move into a home that she inherits in Salem, MA. Strange things begin to happen, or at least they do to her. Are these real events or just her visions? The house’s past seems to be awoken.
But I Don’t Want to Get Married (1970) – A middle aged man becomes widowed and everyone tries to fix him up with his next wife. This was before internet dating. Almost all of the choices prove disastrous. A really nice performance by Herschel Bernardi. Co-starring Shirley Jones, Nanette Fabray, June Lockhart and Joyce Van Patten. Directed by Jerry Paris.
The Unfinished Journey of Robert F. Kennedy (1970) – The only non-fiction film in the Movie-of-the-Week series. A documentary by Mel Stuart about Kennedy’s life and times he lived in.
Brian’s Song (1971) – James Caan and Billy Dee Williams as Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears running backs. Based on Sayers’ book, I Am Third. One of the best remembered television films of all time, winning an Emmy Award for best program and a Peabody Award.
Duel (1971) – Steven Spielberg’s fantastic television film, starring Dennis Weaver as the man pursued by the tanker truck on the lone California highway. Written by sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, this film is not only remembered because Spielberg directed it, on its own, the film is smartly and effectively photographed and edited.
The Feminist and Fuzz (1971) – Starring Barbara Eden and David Hartman as a doctor and a cop, at odds with each other sharing an apartment, and inevitably fall in love. Very funny in places, a clash of perspectives. Directed by Jerry Paris (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Happy Days). A great cast including Julie Newmar, Herb Edelman, Harry Morgan, Jo Anne Worley and Roger Perry.
The Forgotten Man (1971) – Dennis Weaver is presumed dead in Vietnam. Not so fast. He lives and returns home to find his entire life has changed, and not for the better. A great statement about how we treated our Vietnam Vets and the difficulty of returning home, to a life that doesn’t exist anymore. Anne Francis and Lois Nettleton co-star.
Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring (1971)- A coming of age story, starring Sally Field, as a girl who leaves home to discover life as a hippie, then returns home to find her younger sister wanting to follow the same path. The hippie life wasn’t grand and returning home, the middle class life isn’t as welcoming. Directed by Joseph Sargent. With Eleanor Parker, Jackie Cooper and David Carradine.
The Point! (1971)- The animated film with story and music by Harry Nilsson. “Me and My Arrow” is a Nilsson song from the film. A round-headed boy and his dog Arrow, are banished from their village where everyone else’s head is pointed. He finds a place where everyone matters. Dustin Hoffman narrates. The film, as they say, makes a point.
Alias Smith and Jones (1971) – The pilot for the series, starring Pete Duel and Ben Murphy, co-starring Sally Field and James Drury.
The Birdmen (1971) – During WWII, Doug McClure is sent to rescue a scientist working on the A Bomb (Richard Basehart), however both get imprisoned in a castle-like fortress. The only escape is to construct a glider. Somewhat based on the book, Escape From Coldtiz. Co-starring Tom Skerritt, Chuck Connors and Max Baer, Jr. This was a very cool film for its time.
In Search of America (1971) – Dropping out of the rat race and traditional lifestyle was a big theme in the early 1970s, and not just for kids. Adults were tiring of the rut, as Carl Betz and Vera Miles play a middle-aged couple, convinced by their song (Jeff Bridges) to hit the road in a bus, in search of meaning. This was a pilot for a series that didn’t sell.
Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971) – Mildred Natwick, Helen Hayes, Sylvia Sidney and Myrna Loy as retirees who need some excitement in their lives, so they invent a woman for computer dating. For awhile, they enjoy the attention their dater gets from men, but eventually decide to end it so they announce she is engaged. Vince Edwards plays a man who is very interested in the dater and uncovers their secret. The light comedy turns into a thriller. Helen Hayes was nominated for an Emmy for her role.
Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones (1971) – Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Christopher Norris play high school kids that must suddenly deal with a pregnancy. They get married, much to the display of the parents, although the kids believe it is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, the baby dies and their marriage dissolves, which relieve the parents. Co-starring Dina Merrill, Dan Dailey and Tom Bosley. A lot of people remember this film, in part of the frankness of the subject matter. Quite a downbeat film.
The Couple Takes a Wife (1972) – A busy professional couple (Bill Bixby, Paula Prentiss) hire a young woman (Valerie Perrine) as their “maid.” Things get a bit complicated and misunderstood as the woman begins to take on wifely duties. Don’t worry, it’s mainly just innuendo. Television implied a lot and set up conflict between men and women in the liberated early 1970s. Robert Goulet, Nanette Fabray, Larry Storch and Myrna Loy co-star.
Second Chance (1972)- A man who is tired and bored with his life, buys a town and gives life to a bunch of folks who are abandoned by society, giving them a second chance. He bankrolls the town and is accepted as their benevolent leader, for awhile. Then they want to be more independent and the same problems that plague society begin to crop up. Brian Keith and a fine supporting case including William Windom, Elizabeth Ashley, Kenneth Mars, Pat Carroll, Rosie Grier and Avery Schreiber. Not a great film but an interesting idea, and typical of the time where people in high stress, conventional lives suddenly get tired of the rut they’ve dug.
Getting Away From it All (1972) – Two couples decide to leave the harried city life for the country, where life is slower and more idyllic. In the beginning, it is, until it isn’t. This was a familiar theme in the MOTW, people escaping the rat race for something better, but they have trouble finding it, or when they do, it isn’t that great after all. Larry Hagman, Barbara Feldon, Vivian Vance, Burgess Meredith, Gary Collins and Jim Backus are in the cast.
The People (1972) – Kim Darby plays a teacher who gets a job in small community. The residents are quite odd. She eventually discovers they are aliens trying to assimilate without being discovered. William Shatner and Diane Varsi co-star. A very odd film, but a familiar theme of the supernatural, horror and thriller genre.
When Michael Calls (1972) – A woman, Helen, begins receiving calls from her dead nephew, Michael. The voice asks her to help him, to find him. The woman (Elizabeth Ashley) was responsible for committing her sister years ago, then her son, Michael, ran away and is presumed dead. Helen is traumatized by the calls and recruits her ex-husband (Ben Gazzara) and Michael’s brother (Michael Douglas) to help figure it out. Events turn murderous as the suspense it dialed up. A very well-written and directed film, don’t watch late at night.
The Girl Most Likely to… (1973) – Stockard Channing, in one of her first big roles, is an ugly duckling, who after a car accident and plastic surgery, emerges as a stunning woman. Suddenly desirable, she decides to turn the tables on those who shunned her by murdering them. This was actually a comedy, written by Joan Rivers, who based it on her own experiences transforming her physical appearance. Co-starring Ed Asner as the cop investigating the murders.
Shirt/Skins (1973) – McLean Stevenson, Bill Bixby, Robert Walden and Doug McClure star as a group of men who are part of an after-work basketball game. To make things interesting, they make the challenge about each team finding a basketball hidden downtown. Suddenly, the “game” becomes more spirited, with much higher stakes. Written and directed by Bruce Paltrow (The White Shadow).
Pray For the Wildcats (1974) – Andy Griffith like you’ve never seen before. The owner of a big company makes his new ad agency execs to travel to Baja California by dirt bike. Bad things happen, including a murder. William Shatner, Robert Reed, Angie Dickinson and Marjoe Gortner star. This was a great cast, with Griffith trying to lose the Sheriff Andy, good-guy image. Griffith also starred in Savages, another movie where he hunts other men for sport.
Bad Ronald (1974) – The creepy story of a teenage boy Ronald, who accidentally causes the death of girl, and is hidden in the walls of his house by his mother. Then the mother dies, and new people move into the house.
Trilogy of Terror (1975) – Written by Richard Matheson (Twilight Zone) and directed by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows), this film consisted of three different stories, each starring Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces). This film is often called the best horror film of the MOTW series. One of the stories was called “Prey,” about a doll that is possessed by an evil spirit and wants to get outside the doll and inside a person. All three stories are good but “Prey” will give you nightmares. Sleep well.
Seven in Darkness, about seven survivors of a plane crash. All are blind trying to survive. This was the very first film in the series. The Ballad of Andy Crocker, stars Lee Majors as a returning Vietnam Vet whose life has moved on without him. Along Came a Spider, stars Suzanne Pleshette as a widow who goes undercover to find her husband’s killer. How Awful About Allan, stars Tony Perkins as a psychologically damaged man who isn’t sure if someone is out to kill him. The House That Wouldn’t Die, stars Barbara Stanwyck who goes to live with a niece but the house is inhabited by spirits. Congratulations, It’s a Boy!, stars Bill Bixby as a swinging bachelor who discovers he has a teenage son, and must figure out how to deal with it. Thief, stars Richard Crenna and Angie Dickinson as a thief who comes out of retirement to pull one last job. In Death Takes a Holiday, Monte Markham plays “death” and wants to know what love is all about. The Astronaut, stars Markham again, this time as the double, of an astronaut that dies on a mission to Mars, invented in order to save the space program. The Eyes of Charlie Sand, stars Peter Haskell as a blind man with the power to see the past and future. Goodnight, My Love, stars Richard Boone as a 1940s detective tracking a missing persons case. That Certain Summer, starring Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen, in a groundbreaking story about homosexuality. Trouble Comes to Town, stars Lloyd Bridges as a sheriff of a Southern town, who takes in a black kid, and problems begin. A nice view of dealing with racism. Go Ask Alice, a film about teenage drug addiction, stars Andy Griffith and William Shatner. The Letters, a film about letters that are delayed in the mail, and when they are finally delivered start many problems, as lives have changed during the year. Thank goodness for email. Beg, Borrow or Steal, a film about three disabled men planning a robbery, starring Mike Connors, Michael Cole and Kent McCord. Satan’s School for Girls, is about a school where evil lives. The Morning After, stars Dick Van Dyke, as a man who spirals into alcoholism. Van Dyke in real life had to contend with his own addiction. The Gun, directed by John Badham, traces the life of a gun, from manufacturing through various owners and events surrounding use of the gun. It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy, stars Paul Sorvino, as a man who is forced at gunpoint by a woman, to make love to her. No one believes him.
This is my view of this period. Many of these films were entertaining, some were scary, others funny, and a few made you think.