Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Shirley MacLaine, Faye Dunaway, Jason Robards, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor have all been lured to, or back to, television this season. Alfred Hitchcock has even been lured back from the dead. But the biggest star may be one almost never seen on the screen: producer, director and self-described "mini-mogul" Steven Spielberg, whose production "Amazing Stories" is the most expensive and perhaps most important new series of the year.
NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff has said that if this one show is a hit on Sunday, the heaviest viewing night of the week, it could make enough difference in overall network ratings to give NBC the season championship over longtime Nielsen front-runner CBS. Even so, NBC insiders do not expect "Stories" to out-rate the CBS competition "Murder, She Wrote," at least not at first.
Each of the first season's 22 half-hour "Stories" has been produced at a cost of from $800,000 to $1 million, more than many hour-long shows cost, and NBC has taken the risky step of committing itself to a two-year run of 44 programs (most producers are lucky to get a 13-week guarantee). Spielberg has signed up such names as Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, and Brian De Palma to direct episodes and has promised them a creative freedom rare in TV.
Questioned by reporters via a pretentious satellite hookup, Spielberg said last week that all 22 shows will have been shot by the time the first time one airs, that he wrote the original stories for 16 of them and that he directed two, including the premiere (Sept. 29), "Ghost Train," based on fears he had as a child, as what Spielberg project isn't?
Although he claimed to like television (citing such favorite commercials as the fabulous "3-D" Budweiser ad, whose director Spielberg hired for one episode of "Stories"), Spielberg said that one script originally intended for the series has been pulled out and will become a feature film -- implying that maybe it was Too Good for TV.
Spielberg's first TV directorial job was the pilot for Rod Serling's "Night Gallery," starring Joan Crawford as a mean rich blind woman, in 1970, when he was a ripe old 21. His last was the sensationally suspenseful ABC movie "Duel," starring Dennis Weaver, in 1971.
Some "Amazings" may be too "intense" and "scary" for young viewers, Spielberg said, and NBC has agreed to air those at a different, later time slot (is there a self-respecting kid in the country who won't wangle a way to stay up and watch them?). Even these shows will be spooky rather than terrifying: "I don't set out to scare young children like a bogeyman sneaking out of the shadows."
Although he is reluctant even to release storylines, much less screen the first few shows for critics, some details have sneaked out. "Secret Cinema," to be directed by Paul Bartel ("Eating Raoul") is a fantasy about a woman who thinks her friends have conspired to film every minute of her life. "Alamo Joe," starring Kelly Reno ("The Black Stallion") concerns a youngster spirited from 1836 to the present through one of those pesky time warps. Sam Waterston, in "Mirror, Mirror," directed by Martin Scorsese, will be having one of those pesky nervous breakdowns. And so on.
Smasheroo or Spielbomb, the fate of "Amazing Stories," if not the program itself, is certain to be one of the season's closely watched shows.