Unlit Pilots: Movie-to-TV Transitions That Never Made It

Each year, producers put together scores of TV shows with hopes they will make it to a slot on a network or even a cable enterprise. Most are rejected and never make it, to even ever be aired, much less waved on as a series.

It’s not uncommon for TV shows to be spun off of movies. There certainly is a history of successful big screen-to-small screen translations such as M*A*S*H, In the Heat of the Night, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Odd Couple, Friday Night Lights, and the Stargate series.

TV Shows - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Odd Couple and MASH

TV Shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Odd Couple and MASH

But there are countless others that didn’t click, for one reason or another. Here are some movie-to-TV adaptations that were actually made, but failed to go any further than the pilot stage. Some were shot as TV movies, others as single episodes with hopes of getting picked up by a specific broadcast entity. We’re not saying this is a comprehensive list, just a rundown of some of the more interesting examples. We’d love to hear if there’re any others that you are aware of. 

Captain Newman, M.D. (1972): The 1963 seriocomedy with Gregory Peck as a compassionate Air Corps psychiatrist was the inspiration for this nine-year-later pilot with Jim Hutton in the role, which was played more broadly for laughs.

Catch-22 (1973):  Mike Nichols’ film version of Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel wasn’t successful at the box-office, but that didn’t stop them from putting together a half-hour sitcom pilot. A pre-Jaws Richard Dreyfuss was cast as Alan Arkin’s Capt. John Yossarian, Dana Elcar as Martin Balsam’s Col. Cathcart and Andy Jarrell as Jon Voight’s conniving Lt. Milo Minderbinder. The director of the pilot was veteran filmmaker and Jack Lemmon collaborator Richard Quine (Bell, Book and Candle, How to Murder Your Wife). 

The Flim-Flam Man (1969): Two years after George C. Scott and Michael Sarrazin played Southern con artists in a feature directed by Irvin Kershner, Fox tried to make the premise work for the small screen. Forrest Tucker and Don Scardino were the partners in crime who were curtailed before they made their weekly swindle. Scripting was a young James Bridges (The China Syndrome, Urban Cowboy).

L.A. Confidential (1999/2003): The terrific 1997 film of James Ellroy’s City of Angels crime saga inspired this hour-long TV production that seemed like a can’t miss…but did. Shot in ’99 but aired for the first time on the cable channel Trio in ’03, it featured Kiefer Sutherland, Josh Hopkins, David Conrad and Pruitt Taylor Vince in the roles played respectively in the film by Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Danny DeVito. Even additional plusses like top-notch period production design and a script by Walon Green (The Wild Bunch, Law & Order) couldn’t propel this to a slot on TV.

To Sir, with Love (1973): The dramatic and sometimes humorous adventures of a black teacher in a predominantly white London high school may have made for some solid television, but it never got a chance. Hari Rhodes (“Daktari”) took over the role immortalized by Sidney Poitier.

Cat Ballou (1971): Columbia attempted to transform the 1965 cinematic comic sagebrusher that won Lee Marvin an Oscar for his dual role of a drunken sheriff and slick outlaw, but it didn’t pan out. Taking Marvin’s spot was oater veteran Jack Elam, while lovely Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” star Lesley Ann Warren put some oomph into the title role. Unfortunately, one trip to Wolf City, Wyoming was all fans of the material got. 

Movie-to-TV Transitions That Never Made ItPopeye Doyle (1986): After two cinematic excursions of The French Connection with Gene Hackman starring as the tough, profanity-spewing New York cop Popeye Doyle, a television effort was attempted with future Married… with Children star Ed O’Neill in the lead. After a TV movie effort, it was back to picking toes in Poughkeepsie.

True Grit (1978): The exploits of cantankerous, one-eyed federal marshal Rooster Cogburn provided enough fodder for three films—two with John Wayne, one with Jeff Bridges—but weren’t sustainable on the tube, even with character actor par excellence regular Warren Oates as the lawman and Lisa Pelikan as young associate Mattie Ross.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1987): Here’s an odd one: A TV movie pilot based on the spacy 1976 Nicolas Roeg film that starred David Bowie as an alien who landed on Earth to retrieve water for his burned-out planet. Here, Lewis Smith plays the interstellar creature, backed by a cast that includes Robert Picardo, Annie Potts, Bruce McGill and Beverly D’Angelo.

Black Bart (1974): This failed attempt to turn Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles into a sitcom road into the sunset before it even aired, but turned up later on the Blazing Saddles DVD as an extra. The pilot posits Louis Gossett, Jr. as the black sheriff trying to oust bad guys from the town and tame racists at the same time. Paris, Arizona is the town here as opposed to the film’s Rock Ridge, Gene Wilder’s gunslinging Waco Kid is now a former rebel played by Steve Landesberg, Madeline Kahn’s Lilli von Shtup has been replaced by Millie Slavin’s Belle Buzzer and Mel Brooks, smartly, is nowhere in the credits. Not so splendid, splendid.

Married to the Mob (1989): Jonathan Demme’s 1988 organized crime farce, with Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine and Oscar-nominated Dean Stockwell inspired an attempt the following year to bring the proceedings to the tube. It never got beyond the pilot stage despite a cast that included Suzie Plakson, Cynthia Stevenson and a young Lisa Kudrow.

Slither (1974): The quirky 1973 comic gem with James Caan, Peter Boyle and Sally Kellerman was too out there for the small screen transition even with Barry Bostwick and Patti Deutsch in the cast.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1985): Guess the 1967 seriocomedy with Tracy, Hepburn and Poitier really was a movie of its time because Stanley Kramer’s TV remake about an interracial marriage never got off the ground.

Pete ‘n Tillie (1975): The sweet romance cast with a nostalgic glow that paired Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett was supposed to be a sweet romance TV series that paired Carmine Caridi and Cloris Leachman. Never happened.

Under the Yum-Tum Tree (1969): In the 1963 film, Jack Lemmon played a landlord of an apartment complex who charged sexy women tenants a lot less than men so he could oogle and score with them. In the proposed TV version, Jack Sheldon (Run, Buddy, Run) was the building manager, but playing down the sexist aspects of the original didn’t help this land in a regular slot.

The Supercops (1975): CBS thought it was a good thing to run a spinoff of the highly enjoyable 1974 action-comedy with Ron Liebman and David Selby as real-life members of the NYPD whose audacious busts earned them the monikers Batman and Robin. Steven Keats and Alan Feinstein were cast, but the show was busted after the pilot stage.

Norma Rae (1981): Sally Field won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her gutsy portrayal as the feisty textile worker who organizes a union in Martin Ritt’s 1979 film. Stepping into the same part, Carrie Yates’ take on the same rabble-rousing character was barely seen.

Fargo (2003): The Coen Brothers’ twisty 1996 crime saga featured Frances McDormand as inquisitive, pregnant Minnesota sheriff Marge Gunderson investigating a murder. A pre-Sopranos Edie Falco took on Marge—still pregnant–for a TV run that never quite materialized. Rumor has it another TV edition is being developed, you betcha!

Between the Lines (???): The 1977 independent film from director Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street), about life at an alternative newspaper in Boston, featured a cast of bright, young performers, including Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, Jill Eikenberry, Stephen Collins, Gwen Welles, Lindsay Crouse and Marilu Henner. It went the TV pilot route a few years later, although we can’t find evidence about it out there nor about its ensemble cast. Was it only a dream we experienced?