Television producer Glen A. Larson, who died on Saturday at age 77, had an indelible effect on my childhood–and if you happen to be in your thirties or forties, Mr. Larson probably had an equally profound effect on your upbringing, even if the name doesn’t ring a bell. The name Glen Larson certainly resonates with me, and has since I was a kid, when I noticed that nearly all my favorite TV shows were created and/or executive produced by the same man.
Larson, who began his career as a TV scripter, experienced his greatest success in the 1970s and 80s. That latter period was the time of my life when I watched the most TV (television back then was disapproved of by grown-ups in much the same way as cell phone usage is today, which of course made it irresistible to us kids), and no wonder: it seems I was the target audience for most of Larson’s programs, and also those of his fellow writer-turned-mega producer contemporaries Donald P. Bellisario (who co-executive produced MAGNUM, P.I. with Larson), Stephen J. Cannell (of THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, THE A-TEAM and RIPTIDE) and Frank Lupo (of HUNTER and WEREWOLF). All turned out enjoyable primetime fare during my formative years, but it was Larson’s programs that have resonated the most.
I can’t speak for ‘70s-era Larson shows like GET CHRISTIE LOVE! or QUINCY M.E., nor ‘90s programmers like ONE WEST WAIKIKI or NIGHTMAN, but I can attest that my childhood self got enormous enjoyment and inspiration from BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, BUCK RODGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY and KNIGHT RIDER–as, evidently, did legions of others. The pilots of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and BUCK RODGERS were both released as theatrical features, which is something you can’t say of too many other TV episodes then or now.
Looking back on his 40-plus year career in 2009, Larson was quite modest about his aims: “Ours were not the shows that were doing anything more than reaching a core audience. I would like to think that they brought at lot of entertainment into the living room.” That they certainly did, and with enormous ambition and audacity (although there were exceptions, such as the simple-minded action-comedy vehicle THE FALL GUY and the Jennifer O‘Neill-as-vengeful photographer cliche-fest COVER UP).
Who can forget AUTOMAN, about a crime fighting hologram who had a fairy-like blip called Cursor as a traveling companion…or MANIMAL, whose college professor hero had the power to transform into various animals…or MASQUERADE, in which civilians were recruited by the U.S. government to become spies in various scenic locales…or THE HIGHWAYMAN, involving an armored semi truck that could become invisible and turn into a helicopter? Granted, none of those four shows lasted very long, and in most cases, I will admit, there was a reason for that. Say what you will about Larson’s programs, but the man deserves credit for thinking big and never shying away from the outlandish.
Glen Larson’s shows were generally marked by extremely convoluted concepts that had to be explained by off-screen narrators at the start of every show. For me, one of the highlights of BUCK RODGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY was the opening, with its narration about the “freak mishap” that somehow thrust its astronaut protagonist forward in time “five…hundred…years…later.” Another highlight was the opening narration of KNIGHT RIDER that promised “A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist,” and contained what may be the premiere utterance of the immortal movie trailer line “In a world…”
Originality was admittedly not among Larson’s attributes. Check out the “Trade Mark” section of his imdb profile, which claims that Larson “Often copies ideas from feature films and makes small screen versions of them.” Clearly there’d be no BATTLESTAR GALACTICA without STAR WARS, just as THE FALL GUY owes more than a little something to the Burt Reynolds movie HOOPER. Yet Larson’s devil-may-care ingenuity was evident even in his borrowings: the idea of a hologram man from TRON fighting crime in our reality (AUTOMAN) was a fun one. So was that of putting 2001’s HAL 9000 voice into a computerized Trans-Am (NIGHT RIDER) and combining James Bond-ish flash with a LOVE BOAT-like parade of guest stars (MASQUERADE).
The passing of Glen Larson marks the true end of an era. I’m not saying it was an especially great era, but it was a memorable one that had an indelible effect on those of us who lived through it. These days I no longer watch much network TV, and with the loss of Mr. Larson I strongly doubt I’ll be resuming that practice any time soon.