Thursday, February 21, 2008

Donald Westlake's Masterpiece?

I knew (thanks to Sarah introducing me to his work) about the writer Donald E. Westlake, of the Dortmunder series. And I knew about the legendary flop Supertrain -- a Fred Silverman NBC show set on a massively expensive train that tried to combine The Love Boat with thriller plots.

I did not realize until just now that Supertrain was co-created by.... Donald E. Westlake!?!?

Somebody should really ask the guy about his involvement in one of the most fabled flops of all time, a show so bad that it was notorious even among Silverman's unmatched late '70s crop of flops. Hello Larry and Pink Lady and Jeff were at least somewhat cheap to make. This was advertised as one of the most expensive TV productions of the era -- mostly because of the train, certainly not because of the B-list cast (I never thought I'd see a cast list that made Bernie Kopell look like a superstar by comparison) -- and it bombed completely and totally.

It looks fascinatingly horrible, though. Traditionally, trains are the setting for mystery/suspense plots; unlike cruise ships, they don't suggest glamour and romance, but the confined spaces and limited number of hiding places make it perfect for anything involving murder (which is why Alfred Hitchcock's movies have a zillion train scenes). So they apparently tried to fit the train setting by doing train-appropriate plots, except this meant they wound up doing plots like this:

Or this:

So nobody who watched The Love Boat would want to watch that, yet nobody who wanted actual good television would watch it either. Proving again that, though it's hard to admire Aaron Spelling, you've got to at least respect the guy: he knew how to create a winning formula and his imitators really didn't.

Oh, and I got through this post without using the term "trainwreck" to describe Supertrain. Good for me.


Andrew Leal said...

Edward Andrews has always been a favorite of mine, a fine distinctive character actor who could either be kindly comedy relief or sage doctor, or use his cherubhic accountance to play slimy bosses or politicians. I've enjoyed just about everything I've seen him in. But when Andrews is the biggest star in an inordinately large cast (with the possible exception of Nita Talbot, who was better off on "Hogan's Heroes" and the guest star circuit), and only one out of four whose names I even knew, you know a series is in trouble.

And as cheesy as it was, "Love Boat" had an appealing theme song and opening (I was briefly infatuated with "Love Boat" in 2002, but it was after a serious accident and I blame it on the painkillers). This instead reminds me of Filmation's "Disco Droopy," which is never a good thing.

I didn't know about Westlake either. I now wish he'd written a book in which Dortmunder is forced to script a bad TV series about love among the go-karts, or something.

Anonymous said...

I once met Donald E. Westlake and enjoyed joking with him about the array of utterly different performers to play both Dortmunder and Parker (from his "Richard Stark" novels) on-screen. But I never realized that he had anything to do with SUPERTRAIN. That would have certainly been worth asking about. Not that I would have dared interrupt the author's musings about Anna Karina's performance in MADE IN U.S.A., of course.

PJ Parrish said...

Donald Westlake also wrote some pretty hot pulp fiction under various pseudonyms (Alan Marshall, Alan Marsh, Edwin West, Edwina West). I have a copy of "Man Hungry" (cover copy: "An absorbing tale of an incredibly depraved woman who knew no bounds in her search for thrills."

Lawrence Block and Charles Willeford wrote pulps as well. In fact, I think Westlake and Block wrote one together under the pen names Sheldon Lord and Alan Marshall. It's good stuff...

Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know about this particular series, but one of the fascinating things about Westlake's occasional bad books is that they seem always to be the result of some interesting experiment gone wrong: having a character act out of character, or having the Dortmunder gang base a heist on a book by Richard Stark. Even the man's misfires are interesting, in other words. I wonder if Supertrain is another instance of that.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Booksteve said...

I always get SUPERTRAIN mixed up with 1979's TIME EXPRESS which featured Mr and Mrs Vincent Price and a time-travelling train! Now there's a concept!

Anonymous said...

Westlake may have created Supertrain, but a look at the series credits indicates that his involvment with the actual produced show was only peripheral at best.

The first episode bears a credit of "Screenplay by Earl W. Wallace, Story by Earl W. Wallace and Donald E. Westlake". If you know how TV works, and are familiar with the Writers Guild credit arbitration system, this would most likely indicate that Wallace completely rewrote Westlake's original script, probably to the extent that all that survived were maybe only a few character names -- and the fact that it was set on a train.

Westlake gets no other writing credits on the series, nor does he get any kind of producer credit, story editor credit or the like. So, reading between the lines, Westlake probably wrote a script that was picked up by the network -- and as part of the deal, he got a "created by" credit (and the money that comes with that) for any series spun off from that script.

Then for whatever reason (creative differences, probably) he was let go from the show before it got off the ground. His script was then completely and totally gutted and revamped by other hands, to the point where it was most likely unrecognizable as Westlake's work. Other episodes would have used used that script as a jumping-off point, not Westlake's original.

Hopefully Westlake enjoyed spending the money from this debacle!

Unknown said...

Actually, Don was not the original creator of Supertrain, but a hired gun brought in to polish a turd. He was well aware of its awfulness at the time but the money was really, really good. Back then, before the explosion of cable and youtube, tv networks lavished large sums on projects like this and they made Don an offer he couldn't refuse. It's no wonder he didn't advertise his involvement. ;-)

The teleplay is for sale here:

As you can see, Don is not the only author listed. He once told me that a writer can only do so much. "I can make something awful air-able, but not necessarily watchable. There are limits."

The original inspiration for Supertrain is actually "The Big Bus."