A Brief History of "Battle of the Network Stars"

Television viewers of the late 1970s who craved a combination of amateur athletics plus celebrity skin (mixed together with more cheese than a Wisconsin souvenir shop) had to look no further than Battle of the Network Stars. Inspired somewhat by ABC’s popular Wide World of Sports Superstars—an annual competition of professional athletes competing in a series of 10 different events unrelated to their own sport—the network set up a bi-annual “sporting” competition between various actors from series on the three major networks. The first installment aired in 1976 and garnered enough of a following that the series continued until 1985.

As the stars of Welcome Back, KotterCHiPsHappy Days and other hits of the day fought it out in relay races, the obstacle course, the dunk tank, and Simon Says, veteran sportscaster Howard Cosell provided color commentary with the gravity usually reserved for an Ali-Frazier prize fight. But why would a TV star participate in such a spectacle, risking injury and mussed hair during their hiatus? One answer might be that they embraced the human drama of athletic competition. Another might be that this was a time when episodic television didn't have million-dollar salaries, and Battle offered some nice prize money: Each member of the winning team on the debut episode collected $20,000 (the Pittsburgh Steelers only earned $15,000 each for winning the Super Bowl that year). Join us, won’t you, for the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the political incorrectness of the era, and some gratuitous swimsuit shots….

I Protest!

There was dissent in the ranks from the get-go. CBS team captain Telly Savalas (puffing away on a cigarette during an athletic competition, no less) raised a protest after the relay race. It seems that Ben Murphy (Gemini Man, better known for the “Riding with Death” episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000) stepped off of his line and accepted the baton several yards too soon from a struggling Joanna Pettet (Captains and the Kings). This was a “vulgar” and “flagrant” violation of the rules, according to Savalas, who points out that his Greek heritage makes him an expert on such things. NBC captain Robert “Go Ahead, I Dare Ya” Conrad is having none of it and challenges ABC captain Gabe Kaplan to a 100 yard run-off. Forget the 1984 Olympic boycott, this is sports tension at its finest, with Conrad threatening to pull his team from the competition amid a flurry of jaw-dropping ethnic remarks that would never get past the network censors today.

Freestyle or Breaststroke?

Adrienne Barbeau and Lynda Carter were a little nervous—but buoyant with hope—as they stepped onto the starting blocks for the swimming competition. Once they hit the water they lost that deer-in-the-headlights look and went for the jugular. Perhaps it was a little tit-for-tat after that contentious relay race, but it was clear that neither woman wanted to settle for the booby prize. Luckily they had plenty of support—just listen to those “yahoos!” from the hooters and hollerers in the audience!

What It Was, Was Football

Not to say that any of the other contests were necessarily frivolous, but one event that was played very seriously was the 3-on-3 football competition. Maybe it was because many of the male TV actors had played some ball back in the day and were eager to relive their wonder years. Whatever the reason, the men actually took the time to plan some game strategy and play with the fervor of old college pals engaging in a “friendly” competition at a reunion. Just watch Richard Hatch (the Battlestar Gallactica guy, not the Survivor guy) and Joseph Bottoms risk injury while making some very dramatic catches in this clip and see if they’re not envisioning themselves on the gridiron at the Rose Bowl.

“High and Dry, I Need a Ball Player…”

Believe it or not, the Dunk Tank was an actual “athletic” event in BOTNS. Athletic is in quotation marks because there was some controversy as to the accuracy of the dunking mechanism. Skeptical TV viewers noted that the more comely the dunkee, the less accurate the dunker had to be when hitting the target. Notice how a pre-Mad About You Helen Hunt barely nicks the target but yet manages to send hunky Dean Butler swimming.

Meanwhile, Tom Selleck takes entirely too long to strip down to his swimsuit. (Preen much?) And Judy Norton-Taylor (eldest Waltons daughter) boasts some impressive biceps that even Michelle Obama would envy.

Let No Obstacle Block Your Path

Much like on sister show The Superstars, the Obstacle Course was a fan favorite and a deal-breaker for the competitors involved here. Younger stars like Scott Baio and Kristy McNichol seemed to have an obvious advantage, but when similarly-aged celebs like Melissa Gilbert placed further back in the standings than actors twice their age, it gave viewers hope. Maybe youth wasn’t the be-all, end-all when it came to physical fitness…Perhaps if we elder statesmen watched our diet and exercised regularly we could compete with the best of them…  Before you run off to the gym, here is Kristy versus Melissa:

Billy Crystal versus David Letterman:

And Penny Marshall versus Mackenzie Phillips:

For All the Marbles

The ultimate, decision-making event on BOTNS was the Tug of War. After all the preliminary competitions, the two teams with the most points went on to compete in this final event. The captain of each team decided who would play and in which order on the rope (there was a maximum weight limit of 900 lbs. on each side). Watch the fierceness of play involved in this event and you’ll see that tug of war can actually be dangerous (there have been contests in the past where players have lost a finger or two during play), which is why it has been banned as an event in many professional competitions.

If you’ve ever watched Battle of the Network Stars, here is the place to share your memories. If you’ve never seen this show (or even if you have), what current TV stars would you like to see pitted against one another in sweaty, bouncy athletic competition?

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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