There aren’t a ton of absolutes in life, but among a laundry list of things I enjoy whilst spinning around the sun, here’s three: Christopher George, private dicks, and mad scientists. And so imagine my delight when I stumbled across Escape (1971), a failed TV pilot about an ex escape artist turned P.I. who investigates, in his words, “the unexplainable.” And while the pilot doesn’t dip its toes too much into the pool of the unusual, it sure feels like that’s the way they were planning to go.
Not picked up by the network and instead broadcast on April 6th as an ABC Movie of the Week, Escape did little to swerve people away from their Hee Haw’s, All in the Family’s and 60 Minutes for the brass to reconsider putting it back on the slab. What a shame; Escape today plays as Bruce Wayne meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker with a lighthearted adventure feel. Yeah, I know; I’m crying too.
If you still have your TV GUIDE from this week in ’71 (I’m guessing Archie Bunker was on the cover), crack it open and read on:
ESCAPE (Tuesday, 8:30pm, ABC)
An escape artist turned private eye helps a young woman rescue her scientist father from the clutches of a madman bent on creating a deadly virus. Christopher George, William Windom star.
Meet Cameron Steele (George – Pieces), as he meets Doctor Henry Walding (William Windom – The Mephisto Waltz) who tells him he’s about to be kidnapped over a secret formula that he and his dead brother (John Vernon – Animal House) were working on. Naturally, Steele is jumped by thugs, chained up, and thrown into the river. Unluckily for them, HE’S AN ESCAPE ARTIST, and once he’s freed he sets in motion a plan to save the good doctor, with the help of his partner Nicholas (Avery Schreiber – Dracula: Dead and Loving It), with whom he runs The Crystal Ball, a The Magic Castle cum Vegas nightclub.
Steele and Nicholas track down Walding’s daughter Susan (Marlyn Mason – Besetment), leading them eventually to Happyland, an amusement park that houses a secret underground lair in which the formerly dead Dean Wormer plans to perfect the formula (with his brother’s reluctant help) and take over the world. Will he succeed with his devious plan, or will Steele save the world?
Escape is exactly that; pure escapism without a hint of reality, joyfully so. It really does play as an episode of the ‘60s Batman TV series, but less campy and with zero costuming. But that pulpy sense of fun is there; I love this world of magic and illusion right from the start. One gets the feeling that if it had gone to series, we would have learned more about The Crystal Ball and the denizens within; we do meet a psychic, but for all we know he was just trying to impress Ms. Mason. (I know I would have.)
While not exactly leaning into the horror, the connections are there; director John Llewellyn Moxey helmed The City of the Dead (1960) and was tapped to direct Carl Kolchak’s first and greatest adventure, The Night Stalker (1972) the year after Escape. Perhaps producer Dan Curtis saw the hybrid he was going for here, and hired him because of that? We’ll never know. That’s the problem with promising pilots – we’ll never find out what they could have been.
He certainly stocks as many interesting actors as Paul Playdon (Mission: Impossible)’s amusing teleplay will allow. Schreiber comes across as the most surprising; usually seen as the bumbling, apoplectic side kick in such fare as Scavenger Hunt (1979) or Caveman (1981), here he offers up a tempered, witty role as the purveyor of The Crystal Ball who, according to Steele, has many talents, including “actor and student of the occult”. Do you see how they were setting up this series?
Christopher George made his bones through leading man fare on the small screen, The Rat Patrol (1966-68) being the most successful. He did big screen work too, and for horror buffs he’ll always be remembered for Grizzly (1976), City of the Living Dead (1980), Graduation Day (1981), and Pieces (1982). (Others as well, but for me these are the Big George Four.) He was always cast for his laid back likability and raspy charm (my colleague at Daily Dead, Patrick Bromley refers to him as “the human cigarette”, and try hard now to see him any other way), and that’s exactly what you get here; whether jumping on bad guys through windows or escaping from a straightjacket (because HE’S AN ESCAPE ARTIST), he always does it with a wink and a smile.
So let’s see what we get in 73 minutes: action scenes bouncing along to groovy bongo and horn accompaniment; a Batcave After Dark setting for the heroes and an underground lab with giant beakers for the baddies; two narrow escapes for our hero (because HE’S A – never mind), witty side kicks, and Dean Wormer with a scarred face. Now imagine all of that, weekly, with a dose of the occult and weird thrown in. Perhaps this is my deluded version of fan fiction. But that’s the problem with crashing pilots I like – I’m already flying two seasons ahead.Next: It Came From The Tube: BAY COVEN (1987)