Monday, February 08, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 100 Tales of the Gold Monkey (1982)

Donald Bellisario's name remains familiar to a wide audience of TV viewers, not just for popular programs such as NCIS, JAG, and Quantum Leap, but for eighties classics such as Magnum P.I. and Airwolf.

Yet way back in the year 1982, Bellisario also crafted the cult adventure program Tales of the Gold Monkey, an expensive, high-profile initiative set in the South Pacific during the late-1930s.

At the time of the series' broadcast on ABC, many TV reviewers complained vociferously that Bellisario's latest endeavor was nothing but a rip-off of Steven Spielberg's high-profile, summer blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

To wit: like Raiders, Monkey was set in the 1930s. And like Raiders, Monkey was considered a "pastiche" of 1930s era cliffhanging adventures, one re-purposing old genre tropes and chestnuts for a younger generation not yet familiar with them.

Adding to the lurking (but inaccurate...) sense of "copying" Raiders of the Lost Ark, another very similar adventure series aired on TV the same season that Tales of the Gold Monkey bowed, CBS's Bring 'Em Back Alive starring Bruce Boxleitner as Frank Buck. It was also set in the 1930s, in Singapore.

To misquote Oscar Wilde, to produce once TV series like Raiders of the Lost Ark in a season may be regarded as unfortunate; to produce two looks like a pattern. Or so the critics implied.

But whereas Bring 'Em Back Alive disappeared without a trace in short order, a dedicated fan base sprang up around Tales of the Gold Monkey. And it has been lobbying for years to bring the series back alive on DVD in the States. The reason for this steadfast dedication: it was far from the rip-off reviewers accused it of being.

On the contrary, the series was a loving excavation of the classic Hollywood 1940s-1960s adventure film...and one with spirit, camaraderie, and an abundance of humor. Simply stated, Tales of the Gold Monkey was much more Howard Hawks than Steven Spielberg. It was more Cary Grant than Harrison Ford.

Tales of the Gold Monkey is set in the year is 1938, as fascism is on the global march. Heroic but capricious American pilot Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins), his loyal mechanic, Corky (Jeff MacKay), and Jake's trusted one-eyed terrier, Jack, face peril and intrigue during their runs to the South Pacific island of Boragora. They battle Nazi spies, the Japanese Empire, slave traders, and even primitive natives. They just want to mind their own business, but the winds of war are upon them.

Jake's romantic interest in the series is Sarah Stickney White (Caitlin O'Heany), actually a secret agent for the United States government who is masquerading as a second-rate singer/entertainer. Bon Chance Louie (Roddy McDowall), the enigmatic French proprietor of Boragora's most popular watering hole, the Monkey Bar, is another of Jake's allies.

While piloting his beloved (but always-in-need of repair) seaplane, The Grumman Goose all across the Marivellas, Jake frequently butts heads with two recurring foes: Kohi (Marta DuBois), a seductive Japanese princess, and her warrior guardian, Todo (John Fujioka). These villains hardly seem like Raiders characters either; more like Princess Ardala and Killer Kane from Buck Rogers, actually.

Several years ago, I interviewed Gold Monkey writer and director Tom Greene on assignment for Cinescape (before it went out of business), and he shared some of the behind-the-scenes history of Gold Monkey with me. In particular, Greene established the fact that Bellisario first pitched Gold Monkey to the networks in 1979. Chronologically speaking, that's well before the cinematic arrival of Indiana Jones. Bellisario's inspiration in creating Gold Monkey was actually...the films of Humphrey Bogart.

"Tales of the Gold Monkey was homage to those great Hollywood films of old," Greene reported. "Don's a romanticist when it comes to Hollywood -- he lives it and breathes it -- and that's what Tales of the Gold Monkey was all about."

An example of this love of "old Hollywood" is evident in the very names Bellisario selected for the Gold Monkey dramatis personae. Series hero Jake Cutter was named after Captain Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger portrayed by John Wayne in the 1961 film Western, The Comancheros, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca [1942]).

And Jake's profession as independent, small-time transport pilot was a reflection of Cary Grant's similar occupation in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), a Howard Hawks production.

Even Gold Monkey's loyal sidekick "Corky" was intentionally designed as an amalgam of all those famous Hollywood "character" or "sidekick" roles that had been seen throughout the years.

"Corky was a combination of three characters in film history," the late actor Jeff MacKay described for me during a phone interview in 2000. "One is Curly Howard of The Three Stooges. The second is Walter Brennan in To Have and To Have Not (1944), and the third is Thomas Mitchell in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Corky was the heart-of-gold, true-blue friend that the hero could always rely on, even though he had human foibles and weaknesses."

While preparing the series for its network run on ABC, the creative staff of Tales of the Gold Monkey moved into the old Alfred Hitchcock building at Universal Studios, another place rife with history. Though the series was budgeted at a once-astounding $900,000 per hour long segment, an entire island (and the recreation of a time period...) still had to be constructed in believable fashion

"Don's a perfectionist" episode director Harvey Laidman, who helmed several episodes of Tales of the Gold Monkey, told me during another phone interview. "He has a very vivid picture in his mind of what he the time we were doing Gold Monkey, I think he saw it as an action show and he wanted good, credible action that made sense."

Greene likewise notes. "Don's one of the last producers who makes television like feature films, Every week on Tales of the Gold Monkey is like watching great 1930s features." Indeed, that very quality is what brings dedicated viewers back to the series over the decades.

Tales of the Gold Monkey survived an entire season -- 22 hour-long episodes -- and audience attention slowly began to build. In no small part, that was probably due to the increasing boldness of the series' writers, who kept piling on more action, and more expensive stunts.

Greene gleefully reminisces about one such inspiration which also, not surprisingly, came from movie history. "One of the last episodes we did was "Boragora or Bust" about a gold strike, and the whole thing had to do with a revolution. We had this magnificent stuntman, Richard Farnsworth's son, and I said to him, 'can you jump a motorcycle with a sidecar, like the Steve McQueen motorcycle jump in The Great Escape (1963)? He said he could, so suddenly I had this flash of Steve and Jeff in this motorcycle and side car, going over a collapsing bridge, and soaring over it. The next thing I knew, we had it in the episode!"

That kind of thing went on all the time, which is why, decades years later, director Laidman still considers Gold Monkey the most exciting (and demanding) series he's been associated with. "It was a war movie every week. It had flying -- which I loved -- and we were in the Goose shooting process shots for two whole days on episodes. There were war scenes, battles, and I got to use vintage equipment. There was even one show with a China Clipper, but the production company just built a door, and Albert Whitlock painted the rest of the plane around it. It was incredibly ambitious."

Unfortunately, Tales of the Gold Monkey had a secret enemy in its midst. "The network didn't like the lush look of the series," line producer Don Baer reported to me. "They wanted it to be light and sunny, like a kid's show. They saw it as bright. The villains had to be clear-cut and the very idea that characters might speak with foreign accents really bothered them. It was unbelievable. Everything had to be articulated and clear, and the intrigue was not what they were looking for, so the show was considered controversial."

"Right after the pilot, we had a meeting with network staff in Bellisaro's office," Baer remembers, "and Don was reciting some of the developing story lines. We were all nodding our was great stuff. But the network staff just sat there and said, 'No, that's wrong. Don't do that.'"

And rather than encouraging Tales of the Gold Monkey to break away from any and all similarities to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the network demanded commonalities. "The studio kept pushing for mud people and monkey people and other elements that would play up the similarities," Greene told me with not a little irritation.

For Greene, working with ABC -- and their demands to turn Gold Monkey into a kid's show -- was daunting. "We had to overload episodes with swearing so we would have grounds to negotiate with Standards and Practices," he relates. "We would trade them a 'damn' or 'hell' for something we wanted to leave in. During one episode, we had these gorgeous dancers doing the can-can and I offhandedly joked that the performers were not wearing underwear. Well, someone from the network overheard and thought I was serious. Before I knew it, execs were screening the can-can footage frame-by-frame to see if they could detect visible genitalia...."

Ultimate, ABC canceled the series at the end of the first season, yet even that didn't mean that the show couldn't go out in style; or in the tradition of "old Hollywood" it had established with such conviction and fidelity in its almost two-dozen episodes. In fact, the series was supposed to end with another unlikely homage.

"I'd been working on Gold Monkey around the clock, and one night I turned on the TV and fell asleep," Tom Greene told me. "Suddenly I woke up and saw Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy walking around our Monkey Bar set! I thought I'd gone nuts. Then I realized I was actually awake, watching a movie called Devil at 4 O'Clock." That film -- concerning a volcanic eruption on a South Sea Island, was made in 1961, but Greene detected how it could add some visual effects luster to Gold Monkey's final show.

He continues: "The next day, I went to the art director, and he told me that he had built our series sets based on old studio blueprints from Devil at 4 O'Clock. So I said, 'great, let's do a volcano show and the stock footage from the movie will match our standing sets.' That's exactly what we did, in what was supposed to be the final episode of the series, called "A Distant Shout of Thunder." When people saw it, they thought we'd spent millions of dollars destroying our sets when in fact it was just a perfect, magical blend of new footage and stock...."

It seemed a spectacular finish to a spectacular series, but before long, the network struck again. "After we completely destroyed the island, ABC asked us to do one more episode..." Greene laughs.

Today, director Laidman attributes Gold Monkey's continued cult popularity to its timeless tales of adventure. "I thought the stories were absorbing, interesting, and a little corny in a fun kind of way. Bellisario had a rough-n-tumble sense of humor that resonated with audiences."

Producer Baer concurs: "It had the romance of the 1930s, the bigger-than-life hero with the leather jacket, and the elements of intrigue of that time period. It was a lot of fun. That plane [the Goose] was a magic carpet and it could take you anywhere..."

So here we are in 2010, still lacking a boarding pass for that magic carpet. Isn't it about time for an official DVD release here in the United States? There's been one in the UK, I understand. But after all, if (TV) adventure has a name, it must be...Jake Cutter.

(JKM's note: My ill-fated Cinescape retrospective on Tales of the Gold Monkey was not printed before the magazine went under in 2001; but that [lengthier and much more-in-depth] retrospective is posted at my web site here.)


  1. I remember watching Tales of the Gold Monkey in its weekly Friday night timeslot, but usually only half-paying attention to it, as I would usually be simultaneously perusing that week's purchases from the comic shop. At first, only the theme song made any real impression on me. But, then, about halfway through the season, they did an episode about Corky failing to repair a critical problem on the Goose because he was drunk, and vowing to change his ways to make amends. That massive infusion of characterization turned my opinion of the show around, and from then on, I gave each episode my full attention. Thanks for the retrospective, John, and I agree that someone should release a DVD set.

  2. Hey Howard,

    I loved this series back in the day, and would love to see it again now, on DVD, to see how it holds up. All my memories are affectionate, and I'm sure that today I would recognize many more allusions to classic Hollywood.

    Also, I always had a thing for that Grumman Goose. I loved that plane...

    thanks for commenting,

  3. Good news John. Tales OF The Gold Monkey will be shipping June 8 on DVD. Best, SFF

  4. Hey SFF,

    That is great news! Thanks for the update!