1. Ferris Bueller (1990)
Hit movies, if they hit big enough, are rarely allowed just to be hit movies. They live on through sequels, spin-offs, ancillary products, and other means that generate income from familiar names. One option: Turn a movie into a TV show. That’s a tricky business, though. For every M*A*S*H and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, there are many more film-to-TV adaptations that crash and burn, even some that sort of make sense, like the 1990 series Ferris Bueller. Why not turn the wily protagonist of the hit John Hughes movie into the hero of a weekly series? Those pranks and authority-flouting shenanigans might be just as entertaining on the small screen. And in fact, one show that debuted in the fall of 1990 did make a minor hit series from a bunch of Ferris Bueller-esque antics. Unfortunately for NBC, which put Ferris Bueller on the air, it was called Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, and it aired on another network. As for the small-screen Bueller, it never took off, in spite of the presence of a young Jennifer Aniston. Maybe opening with a scene in which the hero talked trash about original Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick wasn’t such a good idea.
2. Diner (1983)
Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical feature debut is remembered as the launching pad for a whole raft of gifted young movie actors, including Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, and Steve Guttenberg. This pilot for a proposed series wasn’t a sloppy knockoff: Levinson wrote and directed it himself, and the cast included Michael Madsen in the Mickey Rourke role, James Spader as a stand-in for Kevin Bacon, Mike Binder in a pretty fair trade for the Gute, and Alison LaPlaca. (Paul Reiser repeated his movie role as Modell the moocher.) Unfortunately, most of them needed further seasoning before they were ready to become big names in their own right, and the same qualities that kept the movie from becoming a runaway hit when it first landed in theaters made the show seem suspiciously quiet and uncommercial to network executives, who used it to fill time one late-summer evening, and ordered no additional episodes. What might have been a continuation of the characters’ stories instead an intriguing footnote to the movie.
3. Delta House (1979)
In an era where the proclivities and profanities of bad-boy premium-cable types like Kenny Powers, Hank Moody, and Ari Gold have met (and occasionally exceeded) the off-color antics of National Lampoon’s Animal House, the brothers of Delta Tau Chi seem made to graduate to episodic adventures on HBO and Showtime. But they weren’t ready for primetime when ABC opened the doors to its cleaned-up Delta House in 1979. It didn’t help that Delta House was missing its own Not Ready For Prime Time Player: The series lacked a crucial agent of chaos in the absent John Belushi, succeeded by Josh Mostel as the brother of Belushi’s Bluto, Jim “Blotto” Blutarsky. Standards and Practices hemmed in a talented writing staff—which included John Hughes and future Emmy-winning NYPD Blue and Deadwood scribe Ted Mann—which had to rely on sanitized, decreasingly outrageous plots about beauty-pageant sabotage and ultimatums from Dean Wormer (John Vernon, reprising his blustery, malapropism-prone administrator) to get the Deltas through a single, abbreviated 13-episode season. Nonetheless, Delta House proved the longest-lasting of the three campus comedies that sprang to life from a Petri dish of stale Schlitz, casual sexism, and Animal House’s box-office receipts in the winter of ’79: NBC’s Brothers And Sisters was suspended a couple of weeks before Delta House, while CBS’ Co-Ed Fever was expelled after a single, late-Sunday-night airing.
4. Bates Motel (1987)
After the relative success of sequels to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1983 (Psycho II) and 1986 (Psycho III), NBC decided to take a stab at transforming the film franchise into a television series. Rather than bringing Norman Bates back, however, Bates Motel—no relation to the upcoming A&E series of the same name, except that it involves the Psycho mythos—eschewed Anthony Perkins in favor of Bud Cort as Alex West, one of Norman’s buddies from the state asylum who, upon Norman’s death, inherited the Bates Motel. Although it was envisioned as a weekly anthology series that would have focused on the various individuals stopping by the motel, the two-hour Bates Motel pilot aired in July 1987 to considerable ire from critics—including Perkins—and poor ratings, which doomed its chances of becoming a series. Perkins, meanwhile, went on to ignore the film’s established continuity by starring in the 1990 made-for-Showtime film Psycho IV: The Beginning—a prequel to the original Psycho.
5. Coming To America (1989)
Aired as part of the series CBS Summer Playhouse, which was essentially an excuse to burn off rejected pilots when no one was watching, the single episode of Coming To America starred a pre-In Living Color Tommy Davidson as Prince Tariq, the African prince Eddie Murphy played in the 1988 film. To convert the film into a series, Coming To America made Tariq a boarder in a typical American household. Paul Bates reprised his role as Tariq’s assistant, Oha. Other cast members might have guest-starred in time, but the show never went to series. It aired only once to summer viewers, at least some of whom must have been puzzled as to why a laugh track now accompanied their spells of déjà vu.
6. Down And Out In Beverly Hills (1987)
This series version of the Paul Mazursky hit of the previous year (which was in turn based on Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning) has the distinction of being one of the first shows on the fledgling Fox network. It also has the distinction of being the first Fox show to be canceled, and probably would have disappeared even sooner if the network hadn’t suffered from a severe lack of anything else to fill airtime. The roles created by Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss, and Bette Midler were assigned to, respectively, standup comic turned C-list action star Tim Thomerson, Garry Marshall mainstay Hector Elizando, and the late Broadway musical diva Anita Morris, who had co-starred with Midler in Ruthless People. The cast also included Evan Richards as the Whitemans’ son, a role he also played in the movie.
7. Walking Tall (1981)
The 1973 film Walking Tall made a folk hero of real-life lawman Buford Pusser by offering a fictionalized account of his war against crime in rural Tennessee. As played by Joe Don Baker in the first film and Bo Svenson in two sequels, the towering Pusser made good use of a hickory stick in his crimefighting. When Svenson reprised the role in a 1981 TV series—even though he appeared in 1977’s Walking Tall: Final Chapter, which killed the hero off—the hickory stick practically deserved a co-starring credit, so prominently was it featured in the show’s credits and promos. But even with the presence of that signature hand-carved deadly weapon, the series only lasted seven episodes.
8. Black Bart (1975)
Blazing Saddles’ success inspired a number of comedies to leech onto Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western parody in their advertising and titles. (See: Blazing Stewardesses.) But when CBS ordered a pilot for a series based on the R-rated, proudly vulgar film, somebody must have gotten cold feet, because it aired as Black Bart, one of the many titles considered for the film before Brooks settled on Blazing Saddles. Louis Gossett Jr. played the sheriff, and Steve Landesberg, who later played Detective Dietrich on Barney Miller, stepped into the Gene Wilder role of the droll, quick-on-the-draw sidekick, renamed “Reb.” But there was no way a network sitcom in 1975 could attempt the kind of humor that made the movie a cultural touchstone, and the crew that worked on the pilot never figured out another way to make the premise work. (For the curious, the pilot is included as a bonus feature on the Blazing Saddles 30th-anniversary DVD.)
9. Paper Moon (1974)
When a recent movie is adapted into a TV series, the TV version almost always features lesser names than those who starred in the movie. Time can play funny tricks, though, and today, this short-lived version of Peter Bogdanovich’s hit movie of the previous year is notable for starring the 11-year-old Jodie Foster, two years before she appeared in Taxi Driver and began to eclipse Tatum O’Neal, whose debut performance in the film Paper Moon made her the youngest-ever winner of a non-ceremonial Academy Award. Like the movie, the series is a Depression-era comic drama about a con man whose traveling companion and partner in crime is an orphaned little girl who may or may not be his daughter. In the movie, Tatum’s father, Ryan O’Neal, played the con man. The series paired Foster with Christopher Connelly, who, like O’Neal, made his name on the prime-time TV soap Peyton Place. What with the cute little girl and her possible father running a Bible-based scam to hustle the rubes, ABC seemed unsure whether this was a family show or something edgier, and after burying it in a kamikaze time slot against The Waltons, the network let it die, leaving Jodie Foster free to pursue other things.
10. Party Girl (1996)
In spite of the heat Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s feature-length directorial debut Party Girl generated at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, the subsequent TV version seemingly ached to sell itself on the merits of other films. Promos for the show touted the minor splash Parker Posey surrogate Christine Taylor made in The Brady Bunch Movie, while the series’ intro sequence dolled up its librarian-by-day, downtown-scenester-by-night protagonist in Holly Golightly drag. Given the way the series busied itself with providing a social life for Taylor’s mother-figure/boss (Swoosie Kurtz, replacing Sasha von Scherler) and whittled the movie’s cast of colorful cool kids down to man-eater Derrick (a pre-Hedwig And The Angry Inch John Cameron Mitchell), the small-screen Party Girl is an extension of Mayer’s film in name and premise only.
11. Revenge Of The Nerds (1991)
The second Revenge Of The Nerds film only pulled in half the theatrical gross of its predecessor, but rather than let a perfectly good franchise go to waste, 20th Century Fox decided the time was right to bring Lewis, Gilbert, and the rest of the gang to TV. Rather than picking up where Nerds In Paradise left off, the pilot for Revenge Of The Nerds effectively rebooted the nerds’ story, introducing viewers to Lewis (Rob Stone) and Gilbert (Lightfield Lewis) on their first day at Adams College, where they meet child prodigy Harold (Grant Gelt) and a neutered version of Booger (now played by Robbie Rist) and get thrown out of their dorm room by the Alpha Betas. Although the pilot—which can be found on the “Panty-Raid Edition” DVD of the original film—never made it to series, Fox still refused to let Nerds die, instead giving the green light to two made-for-TV sequels, Revenge Of The Nerds III: The Next Generation, and Revenge Of The Nerds IV: Nerds In Love.
12. Fast Times (1986)
Adapting the sensibilities of Fast Times At Ridgemont High—a film that inextricably linked The Cars’ “Moving In Stereo” with masturbation—to broadcast network standards was never going to be an easy process. But Fast Times seemed to have a real shot at defying the odds, given that the half-hour series was produced by the film’s director, Amy Heckerling, and featured original screenwriter Cameron Crowe as a creative consultant, with Moon Unit Zappa reportedly researching the most current slang for the show’s teenage characters. Although none of the “teens” from the film reprised their roles, Vincent Schiavelli and Ray Walston returned as Mr. Vargas and Mr. Hand, respectively. Throw in a theme song by Oingo Boingo, and Fast Times seemed like a solid proposition. But the toned-down, profanity-free series was dismissed after a mere seven episodes.
13. Dirty Dancing (1988-1989)
Dirty Dancing was a surprise hit in 1987, but its success didn’t stop at the box office. The coming-of-age story spun off hit records, a touring show, and other offshoots of the Dirty Dancing empire, including a belated prequel in 2004, and a possible remake in the near future. Dirty Dancing’s self-contained story didn’t lend itself to a TV adaptation, but one followed anyway in fall 1988, dropping future Office love-interest Melora Hardin in the Jennifer Grey role, roping in Patrick Cassidy (from the family that brought you Shaun and David Cassidy) for the Patrick Swayze part, and replacing Jerry Orbach with McLean Stevenson, because why not? (Also on hand: future Freaks And Geeks creator Paul Feig.) Rather than trying to continue the story of the film, the series opted to retell it, but audiences didn’t bite, perhaps sensing they’d already had the time of their life, so why try to relive it 30 minutes at a time on a weekly basis?
14-plus. Casablanca (1955 & 1983) / The African Queen (1962 & 1977)
Humphrey Bogart has become so iconic that it’s hard to imagine anyone attempting to fill his shoes, which is perhaps why efforts to transform his films into television series have proven so difficult. To date, there have been two attempts at TV prequels to Casablanca, first in 1955, with Charles McGraw (Spartacus, The Birds) as Rick Blaine, then again in 1983, with David Soul playing the part alongside a cast featuring Hector Elizondo as Captain Louis Renault, Ray Liotta as Sascha, and Scatman Crothers as Sam. Although both efforts proved short-lived—the former survived for 10 episodes, the latter only five—at least they made it to series, unlike The African Queen, which tried and failed to get off the ground on two separate occasions. In a 1962 episode of the NBC anthology series The Dick Powell Theater titled “Safari,” James Coburn took a stab at playing scruffy boat captain Charlie Allnut, teamed with Glynis Johns as missionary Rose Sayer, but while intended as a pilot, it proved to be a one-off adventure. Similarly, Warren Oates and Mariette Hartley starred in an hourlong pilot for CBS, this time actually bearing the same name as the film. But although The African Queen received a one-off airing in March 1977, it failed to inspire sufficient ratings to earn a series pick-up.