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September 12, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | September 12, 2008 |

Boozehound Cinephile is taking a short leave of absence in no way related to a legal matter involving some sorority pledges, in order to offer a new, possibly recurring column about the relationship, or utter lack thereof, between the pop culture of yore and the latest and greatest from the Us People Weekly machine of today. Younger readers, please stay with me, as I think there’s something fun for all of our readers to give feedback on through the mini-comment diversion below.

A handful of readers and staffers such as myself [*cough*TK *cough*] are elderly by Pajiba demographic standards while still relatively young by eligible-for-cremation standards. We’re in the oldest 5% of Pajiba readers, and it’s both amusing and intriguing to follow the occasional culture clashes between our formative memories and those of the next generations — for example, the advent of rap music with acts like The Sugar Hill Gang, as opposed to its maturation during the childhoods of 20- and 30-year-olds with the good (Public Enemy, N.W.A.), the bad (Vanilla Ice), and the hazardously-pantalooned (M.C. Hammer).

(I mean, seriously. What would have happened if M.C. Hammer strayed too close to one of the cooling fans on the set in that music video? Remember in The Incredibles how the superheroes had stopped wearing capes because of problems like getting sucked into a jet engine? Can you imagine the little shreds of bloody sofa upholstery and mediocre music star sprayed all over the place? Sure, no shreds of dignity would have sullied the carpet, but still.)

Rap and hip-hop are far too cool and relevant for our initial foray, however. Today, I want to talk about an ancient group of uncoordinated, out-of-shape, and painfully Caucasian personages, forced by contractual obligations to humiliate themselves by competing in displays of (questionable) speed and feats of (shaky) skill. I want to talk about something that could not possibly happen today.

I want to talk about “Battle of the Network Stars.”

In November 1976, ABC broadcast a two-hour television special in which each of the Big Three networks sent a team of actors from popular television shows to compete in physical challenges - a sort of cheese-tastic celebrity Special Olympics. Howard Cosell, at the time a major cultural figure as the sportscaster for ABC’s Monday Night Football, hosted “Battle” and provided the play-by-play for events ranging from swimming competitions to tug of war to relay races.

“Battle” featured a mind-boggling collection of themed-lunchbox fodder that really presses my nostalgia buttons when I reflect on it. Take a look at the teams sent for that first special in 1976:

ABC: Gabe Kaplan (“Welcome Back, Kotter”), Darleen Carr (“Streets of San Francisco”), Lynda Carter (“Wonder Woman”), Farrah Fawcett (“Charlie’s Angels”), Richard Hatch (“Battlestar Galactica”), Robert Hegyes (“Welcome Back, Kotter”), Ron Howard (“Happy Days”), Hal Linden (“Barney Miller”), Penny Marshall (“Laverne & Shirley”), John Schuck (“McMillan & Wife”).

CBS: Telly Savalas (“Kojak”), Adrienne Barbeau (“Maude”), Gary Burghoff (“M*A*S*H”), Kevin Dobson (“Kojak”), Pat Harrington, Jr. (“One Day at a Time”), Bill Macy (“Maude”), Lee Meriwether (“Barnaby Jones”), Mackenzie Phillips (“One Day at a Time”), Loretta Swit (“M*A*S*H”), Jimmie Walker (“Good Times”).

NBC: Robert Conrad (“Baa Baa Black Sheep”), Melissa Sue Anderson (“Little House on the Prairie”), Karen Grassle (“Little House on the Prairie”), Tim Matheson (“Insight”), Ben Murphy (“Gemini Man”), Barbara Parkins (“Captains and the Kings”), Joanna Pettet (“Captains and the Kings”), Kevin Tighe (“Emergency!”), Bobby Troup (“Emergency!”), Demond Wilson (“Sanford & Son”).

In November 1976, that was quite a line-up. During the 1975-76 and 1976-77 television seasons, “M*A*S*H”,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Maude,” “Kojak,” “One Day at a Time,” “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “Barney Miller,” and “Charlie’s Angels” were all major hits. While some of the “Battle” participants were role players, such as Gary “Radar” Burghoff and Pat “Schneider” Harrington, it’s impressive in retrospect that well-known stars like Farrah Fawcett, Lynda Carter, Telly Savalas, and Robert Conrad appeared on a special where there was only a bit of cash to gain and all the dignity in the world to lose. Equally impressive, there was not a single “washed-up has-been” in the group — everyone involved had ongoing acting gigs in a popular series or was a regular mini-series presence for a network, a far cry from nonsense where Uncle Joey from “Full House” and Kim Kardashian’s Ass show up in a desperate bid to get someone, anyone, to look at them. (Note: I will look at Kim Kardashian’s Ass.)

In future years, the teams on “Battle” evolved with an ever-changing membership, though most of the participants made repeat appearances, such as Gabe Kaplan’s five specials. In addition to those listed in the first special, reviewing the people who made appearances is like compiling a “Who’s Who” of 70s and 80s cheese-o-vision:

Kristy McNichol
Jaclyn Smith
Sonny Bono
Rob Reiner
Dan Haggerty
Jane Seymour
Kurt Russell
Billy Crystal
Suzanne Somers
Valerie Bertinelli
Cheryl Ladd
Cheryl Tiegs
Dick Van Patten
Scott Baio
Robert Urich
William Shatner
Ed Asner
William Devane
Melissa Gilbert
Victoria Principal

… and that’s just the ones from the 70s! The most incredible aspect of the show, however, was that the participants generally seemed really invested in who won. I have vivid memories of Gabe Kaplan and Robert Conrad almost coming to blows over a close finish in a foot race, and even though there were the requisite campy interviews and sports-parody “insider” pieces about each team’s training regimen, there was enough on the line — $20,000 for each winning participant — that they genuinely wanted to win.

The program continued to run on a semi-annual basis through the early to mid-80s, riding major names like Tom Selleck, Michael J. Fox, Tony Danza, and Mark Harmon. “Battle” began to wind down in the mid-80s, for reasons we’ll get into, but after a three-year hiatus beginning in 1985, there was a brief resurgence with a special in 1988 that gives some insight into why the show died. The 1985 program included a host of lesser lights such as Malcolm Jamal-Warner, Tina Yothers, and Allyce Beasley, each of whom appeared on a hit TV show (“Cosby,” “Family Ties,” and “Moonlighting,” respectively), and each of whom appeared well down the credits on that show.

Not coincidentally, the mid- and late 80s saw a cultural shift that made “Battle” impossible to continue in its original format, a shift reflected in two trends: First, television truly came into its own as a major segment of the entertainment industry during the 1980s, with television stars becoming household names with recognition and clout comparable to that of movie stars — it’s astonishing to consider that Harry Hamlin of “L.A. Law” was probably as popular as Robert DeNiro in 1987, maybe more so. Television stars also saw a major jump in compensation, so that it became difficult to create an incentive powerful enough for them to risk looking like a Special Olympics also-ran on national television.

A separate but related development was the subtle dissolving of the lines between television and cinematic acting. Looking at that first group of names from 1976, not a single one was a significant film star. Ron Howard had appeared in a couple of notable films, in particular American Graffiti, but the 70s remained a period when a bright line separated television and film acting, and successful crossovers were few and far between. The 1980s saw a change in this paradigm. As actors like Michael J. Fox, Tom Selleck, and Kurt Russell enjoyed enhanced fame and power, they began to pursue more prestigious and lucrative projects in movies. (These projects were largely flame-outs - High Road to China, anyone? - but that’s a subject for another day.)

As a result of this cultural shift, television networks lost much of their power in relationships with popular television actors. In 1976 it was a relatively simple matter for ABC to tell Penny Marshall, “Run this relay race or Laverne spends next season on her back in a Milwaukee brothel.” The power was certainly shifting by 1985, when Heather Locklear’s swimsuit posters were getting spackled by every 12-year-old boy in the country, most of whom had no idea why she was famous. Can you imagine ABC approaching David Caruso and Dennis Franz in 1994 and asking them to run hurdles in a race against Jerry Seinfeld and Kelsey Grammar? As Dana Carvey might have intoned at the time, “Naht ganna deu it.”

Generalizing from the trivial to the profound, the obsolescence of “Battle” marked a milestone in how we expect television to serve us. Looking back, it’s fascinating and heartening to remember television beginning to take on the role that cinema had exclusively occupied for decades. Sure, most television was and remains utter crap. But through the evolution of the players in the best of television, from “Seinfeld” and “NYPD Blue” right up through “Arrested Development” and “Six Feet Under,” we ended up with truly gifted actors where before there were flop-sweat circus performers who were just glad to have a job. (Don’t even get me started on “Battle” sibling “Circus of the Stars”).

Still and all, I miss not just “Battle of the Network Stars” itself; I miss the idea of our favorite stars from our favorite shows stepping out of character to do something silly, the idea of worlds colliding as Richie Cunningham tried to dunk Kojak in a baseball-toss water tank. “Battle” was reality TV before there was reality TV. The only real difference between “Battle of the Network Stars” and “Survivor” is that I liked the Network Stars before and after the show, while I was in favor of the executions of the entire “Survivor” cast by the last episode.

Reality-TV means something quite different today than it did in the relatively irony-free late 70s. Trust me, I was a snarky little pre-teen shit, a complete puzzle to my earnest parents, and I can’t remember hoping that Linda Evans and Charlene Tilton would get into a nipple-twister over whether the obstacle course was set up fairly. (In fairness to me, it had not yet occurred to me that watching Krystle “Dynasty” Carrington and Lucy “Dallas” Ewing rub each other’s lady parts while I rubbed myself would be the ultimate achievement in the universe.) I really wanted the CBS team to win, because those were the shows we usually watched - we were old-line CBS/Cronkite/Murrow Democrats. I really wanted plucky Valerie Bertinelli to overcome being the weak link in the relay race, because she reminded me of my sister.

These days, I suppose there’s no realistic way to bring back “Battle” — not in its true sense. Bastardized modern versions exist, of course, in the form of “Dancing with the Stars,” “Skating with Celebrities,” and the like. But at least half the viewers of those shows, like me, really only tune in to see “Root for the D-Lister to Bite It and Need Complicated Orthodontal Re-Structuring and Cosmetic Surgery.” Who wasn’t excited to see Kristy Swanson’s face put into service to figure out whether the skating rink ice was frozen too hard?

There are certainly intriguing ideas about how one could implement this concept, were sufficient incentives there to entice the television actors of today. With that in mind, our mini-comment diversion for today is: What television stars would you like to see compete on the athletic field, and what events would they perform?

I’ll start: My favorite idea is near and dear to Beloved Leader Dustin’s heart. See, what you do is, you take Rainbow Killer. You tie her Heigl ass to a four-foot rope. You stake that rope into the ground. You provide javelins to Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, Sandra Oh and the other “Grey’s” folks. Starting from fifty yards out, first one to wing her gets a co-starring role in the next Adam Sandler movie. First one to strike a mortal blow gets an above-the-title credit in Soderbergh’s next film. Keep moving them in toward the target till someone scores. Then move them in again.

Others are more obvious, e.g., the Big Four versus the cable networks or Showtime versus HBO. Some are more esoteric, but also much more fun. I can see a whole show just on the various incarnations of “CSI” versus the “Law and Order” family. There’d be about fifty people on each team for that one, but I really can’t wait to see David Caruso’s interview after losing on the obstacle course.

“That Sisto is fast …”

[bends down to pick up syringe from ground]

[whips off sunglasses]

“Maybe a little toofast.”


Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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