9 Live Television Spectacles

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The hills were alive with the sound of just everybody turning their televisions on to watch NBC’s televised live version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The Sound of Music last night, with the Carrie Underwood- and Stephen Moyer-starring event pulling in a solid 18.5 million viewers. Though the live televised musical format hasn’t been utilized in quite some time, it’s not nearly as foreign as some have made it sound. Though such a thing hadn’t been attempted in 50 years, there have been plenty of other large-scale live events piped into a TV near you over the past decades. 

1. 1955's Peter Pan (And again in 1956 and 1960)

Perhaps the most well-known live television spectacular, NBC’s version of the beloved J.M. Barrie play Peter Pan was also the first full-length Broadway production on color TV. The Mary Martin-starring live version first played on March 7, 1955, with a cast that featured nearly all of the stars of the 1954 Broadway production, and it proved to be wildly popular—it drew a then-record audience of 65 million viewers.

Peter Pan was so popular, in fact, that NBC restaged the whole thing the next year, with another live version hitting the airwaves on January 9, 1956. But even that wasn’t enough to sate hungry viewers, so yet another version was staged on December 8, 1960. This production was a bit different—there were some cast changes, it was expanded into a 100-minute version from the previous 90 minutes, and it was filmed in color for later telecasts. It’s still considered the definitive version of the Martin-starring “Pans” and it remains a perennial favorite.

2. 1957’s Cinderella

The magic of live versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics is not just confined to that new The Sound of Music: The Broadway duo’s Cinderella also got its own live telecast way back in 1957. The production starred no less than Julie Andrews herself, and the CBS telecast aired live on March 31, 1957, ultimately reaching a staggering 100 million viewers.

Despite being a bonafide Disney princess, the story of Cinderella was also lovingly rendered by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and two other film versions—the 1965 Lesley Ann Warren-starring version and the more recent 1997 Brandy Norwood-starring take—draw from the pair’s original work, not the animated classics.

3. 2000’s Fail Safe

It’s not just stage musicals that can go the terrifying live TV route, it’s also heady dramatic stage plays—even heady dramatic stage plays that star George Clooney. Back on April 9, 2000, CBS unleashed a live version of Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Cold War novel Fail Safe on a history-hungry audience. (The book had previously been adapted into a film by Sidney Lumet back in 1964.)

It was an undeniably serious affair—the Stephen Frears-directed special was introduced by Walter Cronkite, it played in black and white, and it featured such glam settings as the Pentagon and a fallout shelter—but it also had a star-studded cast. Clooney was joined by Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel, Noah Wyle, Hank Azaria, Brian Dennehy, Don Cheadle, Sam Elliott, and James Cromwell in the special, which centered on the unexpected fallout when a U.S. bomber is mistakenly ordered to drop a nuke on Moscow.

4. 2005’s The Quartermass Experiment

Five years after Fail Safe, the BBC tried its hand at the super-serious live telecast with a remake of the 1953 series, The Quartermass Experiment. The science fiction serial from Nigel Kneale was adapted to a contemporary setting, starring Jason Flemyng in the eponymous role, an astronaut who is the only man to return from a three-person mission to space (and even he returns…well, different). The special also starred rising actor David Tennant.

The telecast wasn’t without a few bumps—it finished a full 20 minutes early, included limited line flubs and cast stumbles, saw the appearance of a cameraman and a sound guy popping up in a shot, and had two separate interruptions by on-screen graphics announcing the death of Pope John Paul II—but it was a big success for the BBC, as it became the fourth-highest-rated program in BBC Four history.

5. 1980’s The Oldest Living Graduate

Clooney isn’t the only big name star to take to live television for a beloved project—Sally Field did it, too, with The Oldest Living Graduate. Based on the 1974 Preston Jones play of the same name, Field and co-stars Henry Fonda, Timothy Hutton, Harry Dean Stanton, John Lithgow, and Cloris Leachman top-lined the talent-stacked production, which aired on NBC on April 7, 1980.

Filmed at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, the tale of a Texas family and their many machinations, motivations, and maddening issues was a small-scale hit, one that was eventually bolstered by a sad bit of trivia—it marked Fonda’s final stage appearance.

6. 1961’s Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte’s beloved classic has been adapted for the screens—big and small—many times over, but it was only done live on television just once. CBS cut down the rich romance for a slim hour of live television back on April 27, 1961. The Sally Ann Howes- and Zachary Scott-starring drama focused on the middle section of Bronte’s sprawling novel, picking up when young governess Jane first arrives at the foreboding Thornfield Hall and meets the dashing (and dangerous) Mr. Rochester.

Despite its limited runtime, the special is considered a solid take on the material, and one of the very best American versions of the beloved British novel.

7. 1981’s All the Way Home

Just a year after hitting the small screen with the televised version of The Oldest Living Graduate, Sally Field returned to the stage for yet another live telecast of a hard-hitting play. Based on Tad Mosel’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning 1961 play (which was in turn based on James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family), All the Way Home centered on a Tennessee family in the midst of great upheaval and tragedy after the death of their patriarch.

Like The Oldest Living Graduate, the film was broadcast live from a performance, this one staged at the University of Southern California. The live telecast played on NBC on December 21, 1981.

8. 2005’s The West Wing episode “The Debate”

A number of television shows have used the gimmick of a live episode to enthrall audiences, but only a few truly stand out. One such winner is “The Debate,” the seventh episode of The West Wing's seventh season. The beloved series’ final season needed a big bang to get it going, and two live broadcasts, featuring characters going “off script,” seemed like the way to go.

Two live versions of the episode were performed—one for each coast—both starring Alan Alda as Senator Arnold Vinick and Jimmy Smits as Congressman Matt Santos gunning for the presidency in an aggressive, energetic “live presidential debate.” The episode certainly had the appropriate live flavor, and the production’s choice to not include any original cast members only added to that veracity (even as it riled West Wing devotees).

9. 1997’s ER episode, “Ambush”

NBC was no stranger to the live show format: The network quite memorably utilized the technique almost a decade earlier, when medical drama E.R. opened its fourth season with two live episodes.

Unlike “The Debate,” however, “Ambush” used the show’s principal cast to fine effect, while also adhering to an outside gimmick to drive it. The September 25, 1997 double-show was framed as a documentary, with a camera crew invading the E.R. to chronicle the recovery of Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Mark Greene. Along the way, the episode included a near-riot, a heart attack, and the arrival of Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston). The two episodes were successful, despite a few minor mistakes in each (a character drops a pen in one episode, a patient loses his concealed weapon in another).

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December 6, 2013 - 4:09pm
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