This is the twenty-ninth in a series of examinations of legends about television and the people involved in TV and whether they are true or false.
Click here to view an archive of the previous TV urban legends.
While not on purpose, I noted that each of today’s legends involve an actor abruptly leaving a television series. So I guess I will say that is today’s theme!!
TV LEGEND: The phrase “Does Not Compute” debuted on Lost in Space
It’s pretty funny, I’m used to a legend tying into a past legend, but today’s first legends ties in with TWO of the legends from Play Legends Revealed #2!
First off, that installment involved the origin of the term “robot” for artificial human-like machines. Today, we look into the origin of the phrase “Does Not Compute.”
“Does Not Compute” has become a very popular phrase when it comes to the depiction of robots. I suppose it an interesting take on the notion that robots “compute” rather than “think,” and it is a very cool way of showing a robot reacting differently than a human.
The most popular usage of the term is quite possibly the Robot in the 1965 television series, Lost in Space.
The robot’s MOST popular catch phrase was “Danger!” or “Warning!” – this has solidified into the popular consciousness as the phrase “Danger, Will Robinson!” which the Robot actually only said once (Will Robinson is the youngest child of the family that is lost in space), although the robot DID frequently warn young Will of danger.
While that is the most popular catch phrase of the robot, it has also often been attributed as coining the phrase “does not compute.”
It did not (it did use the phrase, though).
As an alternative, some have credited the 1966 television series Star Trek at coining the phrase…
It, too, did not actually coin the phrase (I can’t honestly say that I know if it even used the phrase – I imagine it did, but I can’t say for sure).
So where DID the phrase come from?
Why, none other than a 1964 sitcom starring Bob Cummings (the other connection from Play Legends Revealed #2!) and a pre-Batman Julie Newmar, My Living Doll!
The show was created by Jack Chertok, following his hit sitcom the previous year with a fairly similar premise, My Favorite Martian…
In My Living Doll, Cummings plays a psychologist who is put in charge of an experimental robot (to keep her away from the military). He names her Rhoda and proceeds to begin to program her to be the “perfect woman” (and yes, it is just as sexist as it sounds – more so, really).
Her catch phrase was “That does not compute” (sometimes “That doesn’t compute”), becoming the first use of that term.
The show barely lasted through the first season, though, as Cummings chafed under the idea of having to share the show with Newmar (Cummings seemed to view the show as almost like a sequel to his last sitcom), and actually quit the show with a few episodes left to film! Cummings wanted to have a script filmed where Cummings’ characters’ grandfather would visit (Cummings in a dual role), echoing a character Cummings did on his last show. In the episode (the 22nd of the series), Newmar’s role was basically a background one. Chertok balked at the idea and Cummings quit.
His wacky neighbor thereby inherited Rhoda for the rest of the show’s short run.
A short run but, in the long term, an influential one!
TV LEGEND: An episode of Ally McBeal that featured a wedding proposal had to be edited at the last minute to become a break-up episode when one of the stars of the show was fired.
Few shows have run as hot and as cold as David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal.
Starring Calista Flockhart as a neurotic lawyer working in a wacky law firm, the show was a massive hit upon its debut in 1997, and won the Emmy Award for Best Comedy after its second season!
The show cooled off rather dramatically following its hot start, though, and by the end of Season 3, it was no longer a “buzz-worthy” program (it received only three Emmy nominations for Season 3 after 13 for Season 2 and 10 for Season 1).
Luckily, while the show needed help, there also happened to be an actor out there who could use some help.
Talented movie star Robert Downey Jr. spent pretty much all of the late 1990s fighting his drug addiction, eventually serving almost a year in prison beginning in 1999.
Within a week of his release from prison on probation, Downey signed on with Ally McBeal, presumably in an attempt to rehabilitate his image (as well as boost McBeal’s ratings).
He joined the cast for the fourth season, playing Ally’s new boyfriend, Larry.
The move was a critical and commercial success, and the show was once more a “buzz-worthy” show…
While things were going well on the show itself, things continued to go poorly for Downey. He was miserable being “stuck” doing television (not any particular problem with the show or his co-stars, he just hated the 9 to 5 work atmosphere of filming a television program after the much more flexible schedule of filming movies) and the drug use continued.
He got caught with drugs again in November of 2000, but while awaiting the hearing on that case, he continued acting on McBeal.
However, in April of 2001, with the filming finished on all but one episode of the series, Downey was arrested once again for drug use, although he was not charged (he was on cocaine at the time, though).
That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and Downey Jr. was fired from Ally McBeal, either by Kelley himself or by higher-ups forcing Kelley to let him go. The public statement stated that it was Kelley’s decision, but certain aspects of the situation seemed to suggest otherwise, including the fact that in the last episode Downey filmed, his character got engaged to Ally McBeal!!
Yes, the relationship between Larry and Ally had proven so successful that Kelley planned to have the two marry in the final episode of season four.
Now with Downey out of the picture, the penultimate episode of Season 4, “Home Again” had to be severely re-written by a peeved Kelley to go from an episode where Larry proposes to Ally to an episode where Larry INTENDS to propose to Ally but instead breaks up with her.
In a nod to the original plot (and perhaps another sign that Kelley did not agree with the decision to can Downey), the finale of season four kept its original title, and was called “The Wedding,” even though, of course, there was no wedding in it.
The departure of Downey (and a few other notable cast members) was the end of Ally McBeal’s days of being a talked about show (it received 7 Emmy Nominations, with Peter MacNicol beating out Downey for Best Supporting Actor), and it limped to the finish line with Season 5 being its final season.
Downey, meanwhile, after being sentenced to drug rehabilitation and three years of parole (luckily for him, the laws in California heavily decreased in severity following his original drug arrests, or else he’d be back to prison) eventually resurrected his career, most notably with his recent starring turn in the blockbuster film, Iron Man….
and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Tropic Thunder…
So while he’s likely not thinking much about “What If…?”s, I am sure many Ally McBeal fans are!
TV LEGEND: A TV series continued production even after one of the two leads on the show killed himself.
I would never dream of begrudging shows continuing when one of their leads die. I mean, obviously, The Royal Family was not going to last long past Redd Foxx’s death or Chico and the Man after Freddy Prinze’s suicide, but when you’re in charge of a television program that employs dozens of people, I don’t think it is unfair at all to consider those people’s jobs and continue the show even if the chances are that the show won’t recover from the death of one of the leads.
However, few shows reacted as oddly to a lead’s death as Alias Smith and Jones, which never even halted production!!
Alias Smith and Jones was a clever western series created by Glen A. Larson, noted TV writer and producer (and creator of Battlestar Galactica, as well as Knight Rider, among many many shows, including co-creating Magnum P.I.).
It starred Pete Duel as Hannibal Heyes and Ben Murphy as Kid Curry, two of the most well-known outlaws in the Wild West, who now have decided to go on the straight and narrow. They always made a point of not killing people, so they convince a sheriff to pardon them. However, due to their notoriety, the sheriff can’t OFFICIALLY pardon them or else the outrage would be far too intense. Instead, they have to be good guys for an undetermined time until they have “earned” their pardon. In the mean time, they take on the respective aliases of Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones (hence the title of the show, Alias Smith and Jones) and try to stay away from the lure of the life of the outlaw, while also staying clear of detectives still trying to capture them (as well as former associates who don’t appreciate their reformation).
The show debuted strong in the ratings (not getting destroyed TOO badly by its time slot opponent, the popular Flip Wilson Show), and for awhile there, it seemed like they had a chance to buck the trend in television of Westerns no longer having an audience (There were very few of the classic Westerns still on the air by the time Alias Smith and Jones debuted as a mid-season replacement in January 1971).
Then, mid-way through their second season, tragedy struck – Pete Duel killed himself via a self-inflicted gunshot wound sometime after midnight the morning of New Year’s Eve, 1971.
Even before the show began, the legendary television writer/producer Roy Huggins was sort of co-running the show with Larson (veteran producer Jo Swerling, Jr. was the day-to-day producer of the show), and by the beginning of the first season, Huggins was mostly in charge, and Huggins’ first instinct was to just cancel the show.
However, in a meeting with ABC executives on the morning of January 1, 1972, Huggins and Swerling were basically ordered to keep up with production of the show. Effectively, “You have a contract with us to keep doing this show – if you stop, we will sue you.” Not only that, but because the show was already behind schedule (hence the fact that they had scheduled filming for New Year’s Day) they were ordered to continue filming THAT DAY!
So a shocked Huggins and Swerling had to go to the set (where all the employees had gathered and were informed of Duel’s death – except those that had heard it on the news) and tell everyone that production was to continue on the show – they were to just film scenes of the episode (which they had already completed two days worth of shooting) “The Biggest Game in the West” that did not feature Duel until his role could be re-cast.
Actor Roger Davis (who actually did the spoken intro to the series) was cast while on a flight to Aspen for New Year’s Eve and by the end of the day on January 1, 1972, Davis was already being fitted for his costume.
And after the funeral for Duel on January 2, 1972, production picked back up the following day with re-shots of some of the scenes filmed with Duel in them, and all the new shots needed with Davis.
For some of the scenes, they would show the back of Duel’s head and then cut to a close-up of Davis’ face (or vice versa).
For example…here is Jones (played by Davis) leaving a stagecoach…
and here is Jones (played by Duel) walking to the bank from the stagecoach…
Pretty freaky, huh?
The show would finish its second season and actually get renewed for a third season, but was canceled during November sweeps (it had moved to air across from All in the Family, which did not bode well for whatever show airing against it). All together, Davis starred in 17 episodes as Jones to Duel’s 33.
Thanks to Douglas Snauffer and Joel Thurm’s great book, The Show Must Go on: How the Deaths of Lead Actors Have Affected Television Series for the information about how ABC forced the show back into production!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com
Tags: Academy Awards, Alias Smith and Jones, Ally McBeal, Ben Murphy, Best Comedy, Best Supporting Actor, Bob Cummings, David E. Kelley, Emmy Awards, Glen A. Larson, Jack Chertok, Julie Newmar, Lost in Space, My Favorite Martian, My Living Doll, Pete Duel, Robert Downey Jr., Roger Davis, Tropic Thunder