Welcome to a new feature here at Ponch’s – PILOT WATCH. I love watching old television pilots and seeing how much was already in place before the show became a hit. Or, sometimes, wondering how on Earth the show was made in the first place.
For those that don’t know, a pilot is a an episode of a television show designed to introduce the characters and situations as well as give a sense of what the show is all about. Think of it as a proof of concept so the network can see what they will be airing.
Back in the early days of TV, even as late as the 1990’s, they used to air a number of pilots to see what the response was from the viewing public. As a kid, I remember seeing a sneak preview of the CHiPs pilot and realizing it was going to be the greatest show ever made.
In some cases, the pilot simply becomes the first episode of the regular show and is added right into its normal rotation. Other times, many changes are made before the first episode airs, so the pilots are lost to history.
For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a pilot that was only 25 minutes long. The executives liked what they saw, so it was extended to a full hour before airing as episode one.
They may also use the pilot as a chance to see all of the actors in one space for the first time. Using the Buffy example, the network felt everyone in the cast fit well together except for Riff Regan, the original actress playing Buffy’s friend Willow. She was replaced before they re-shot the first episode and Alyson Hannigan stayed in the role for all seven seasons.
The first show featured here will be Eight is Enough, originally a book written by Thomas Braden about his life with eight children.
While that may seem like the most interesting part of his life, Braden himself had a fascinating backstory. A Dartmouth graduate, he enlisted in the British Army while the US was still neutral in World War I and saw combat in Africa. He parachuted behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied France.
He eventually joined the CIA and became head of the International Organizations Division of the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination, “the ‘covert arm’ of agency secret operations”. Consider that the next time you watch Dick Van Patten in that role.
Braden eventually retired from the CIA and bought a newspaper in Oceanside, California. He was active in Democratic politics before returning to Washington for a larger journalistic role. He became such a force for the democratic voice that he was the original co-host on CNN’s Crossfire, facing off against Pat Buchanan.
But enough about Braden. This is about his book, in which he spoke not only of his family, but also about his CIA life and marriage to a former State Department employee. Executives at ABC found the idea of a large family intriguing and began developing the story. Apparently, the whole CIA plot was too much and the dad just became a newspaper columnist.
Casting for the show happened pretty quickly. Stage and screen star Diana Hyland was cast as Joan Bradford, changed from a government official to a homemaker. The kids were cast next. As a favor to Braden, they kept the names of all his children for the show.
The father was the toughest to cast. The creators were hoping for an unknown actor, while the head of ABC had his heart set on one star – Dick Van Patten. After following Van Patten in the role for years, it’s safe to say he was a great choice. He brought a perfect blend of drama and comedic timing to the role.
That blend of styles is one thing that really struck me on this viewing. I remember the show tackling a lot of serious issues including death, young pregnancy, drug use & infidelity. However, they always found a way to keep it from getting too heavy. They played up the laughs whenever possible.
For example, during an early scene when fifteen-year old Elizabeth wanted to go on a date without wearing a bra, she was having an argument with her mother. Dad/Tom walked in:
Elizabeth: Do any of the young secretaries down at the paper wear bras?
Tom: How would I know, sweetheart? (Looking to his wife.) I’m a married man.
Elizabeth: Daddy, you’re not blind.
Tom: I ain’t dumb, either. I’ll be on the porch.
But let’s get into the actual pilot. It starts off with what immediately seemed like a familiar sight. A football game between the Bradfords and their best friends, the Maxwells.
Dr. Maxwell was a semi regular with older kids, some of whom had already moved out of the house. These football games seemed to happen at least once per season and were often good for some cheap laughs.
After the game, the two heads of household are discussing kids growing up and moving on. Dr. Maxwell comments that he would never be able to remember the names of eight kids. So Tom tosses out this beauty:
That’s his mnemonic device for all the children.
Whatever works, I guess.
Anyway, these are the kids you may remember from the five-year run of the show. However, the pilot has a couple of surprises in store.
First, the bad news. Two of the actors didn’t survive the pilot.
The original Tommy just didn’t have much charisma and came off as very wooden:
And the original Nancy looked too old. As series developer Bill Blinn recalled:
Kimberly Beck [the orginal Nancy] was twenty-one and looked twenty-one. Dianne Kay [her replacement] was twenty-four, but looked seventeen.Eight is Enough developer Bill Blinn
But the bigger story here was the original David. Hold on to your hats!
That’s Mark Freakin’ Hamill, folks. He was getting ready to film some small flick about a farmboy in outer space and wasn’t sure anything would come from it. So he took on this role and the security of a five-year series commitment. We’ll discuss more about that later.
Anyway, back to the show. Elizabeth gets arrested with her boyfriend for possession of narcotics and Tom has to hire a big-time lawyer from Los Angeles to bail her out.
Tom & David get into a big argument about whether Elizabeth should have been bailed out or not.
David thinks she did the crime, so she should do the time. Tom just wants his baby girl out of Juvenile Hall.
Eventually, David decides it’s time for him to move out and get his own place. Sentimentality ensues. Both feel they are right and are too stubborn to own up to it.
Meanwhile, the other kids call a family meeting to claim dibs on David’s old room.
At the same time Tom is stressing about having to come up with $1500 for the LA attorney, Joan (his wife) has arranged for an architect to draw up plans to redo their master bedroom. The cost for the plans? Six hundred bucks.
This has always been one of my biggest gripes about TV shows and movies. Is this common everywhere else but my own home? If my wife or I are making a large ticket purchase, we discuss it first. Even if we’re spending a couple hundred dollars, we run it past each other, just as a courtesy. Yet, here we have Joan spending six hundred dollars without saying anything.
It’s like the TV commercials where one spouse surprises the other with a car. Um, shouldn’t you have discussed that first?
But I digress…. Back on the show, Tom now has to face the architect and admit he can’t pay. As they discuss payment plan options, the architect reveals that his own son has lukemia and they can never plan far in advance because they don’t know how long he’ll have.
Tom realizes he needs to mend fences with David, so he goes to visit him at his new apartment. Unfortunately, he’s arrived at a bad time.
As was the case for this show, everything gets wrapped up in under an hour. However, even when they poured on the schmaltz, it was well-earned. After all, the show was about family and all the love and messiness that brings.
The final scene is back on the football field with the Maxwells. David shows up just in time to join them. And the show ends with Luke Skywalker as quarterback.
Over the last few years, I’ve watched a lot of TV from the 70’s and 80’s. That’s one of the reasons I started this site. I can honestly say, this was one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve seen recently. Sure, it’s dated, but the fundamental idea of “family first” still holds up.
Plus, it was refreshingly honest. It got sappy at times, but it was also brutal on occasion. For instance, at one point, Mary was with her mom in the kitchen and asked why they had so many kids. Apparently, she had gotten flack at school about it, but her mom told her the truth:
How awesome is that?
Once the bigwigs at ABC saw the pilot, they called for the replacement of the two kids. They also ordered a nine-episode first season.
However, between the time the pilot was in production and the network finally approved it, a funny thing happened. Buzz was building around Hollywood that a tiny space opera movie might actually be pretty good.
Star Wars was getting excellent word of mouth and they had already started talking sequel. Unfortunately, Mark Hamill had signed on for a five year commitment and he wanted out. The network said no and threatened to sue for breach of contract. Hamill reluctantly agreed to stick around and begin filming the first season in January of 1977.
Fate, on the other hand, had other plans. In early January 1977, Hamill was in a severe car crash resulting in a broken nose and cheekbone. He was hospitalized for a while and was unable to begin shooting the first episodes, so ABC released him from his contract. Grant Goodeve was brought in as the new David.
Sadly, one more change would result just four episodes into the season. Diana Hyland, who played matriarch Joan Bradford, starting getting severe pain in her back and left the studio to see a doctor. She had previously been diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. The cancer had come back with full force, however, and quickly spread through her entire body. She passed away only twelve days after the series premiered on ABC.
The second season began by introducing Tommy’s tutor (Abby) to the family. She began a speedy romantic relationship with Tom and they got married in November. The show skyrocketed to Nielsen’s Top 15 where it stayed for three years.
This is a show I will definitely go back and visit. If you’re looking for some good, clean, wholesome entertainment from this era, it doesn’t get much better than the Bradford clan.