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Glen A. Larson, the wildly successful television writer-producer whose enviable track record includes Quincy M.E., Magnum, P.I., Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider and The Fall Guy, has died. He was 77.
Larson, a singer in the 1950s clean-cut pop group The Four Preps who went on to compose many of the theme songs for his TV shows, died Friday night of esophageal cancer at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, his son, James, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Larson also wrote and produced for such noteworthy series as ABC’s It Takes a Thief, starring his fellow Hollywood High School alum Robert Wagner as a burglar now stealing for the U.S. government, and NBC’s McCloud, with Dennis Weaver as a sheriff from Taos, N.M., who moves to Manhattan to help the big-city cops there.
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After ABC spurned the original pilot for The Six Million Dollar Man (based on the 1972 novel Cyborg), Larson rewrote it, then penned a pair of 90-minute telefilms that convinced then-network executive Barry Diller to greenlight the action series, which starred Lee Majors as a former astronaut supercharged with bionic implants.
Other shows Larson created included Alias Smith & Jones, B.J. and The Bear, Switch (another series with Wagner), Manimal and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. He spent his early career at Universal Studios, inventing new shows and reworking others, before moving to 20th Century Fox in 1980 with a multiseries, multimillion-dollar deal.
With Lou Shaw, Larson conceived Quincy M.E., which starred Jack Klugman — coming off his stint on The Odd Couple — as a murder-solving Los Angeles medical examiner. A forerunner to such “forensic” dramas as CSI, the series ran for 148 episodes over eight seasons on NBC from 1976-83.
CBS’ Magnum, P.I., toplined by Tom Selleck as a charismatic Ferrari-driving private instigator based in Oahu, Hawaii, also aired eight seasons, running from 1980-88 with 162 installments. Larson created the ratings hit with Donald Bellisario, with whom he had worked on Quincy and Battlestar.
NBC’s Knight Rider, starring David Hasselhoff as a crime fighter aided by a Pontiac Trans-Am with artificial intelligence (K.I.T.T., drolly voiced by William Daniels), lasted four seasons and 90 episodes from 1982-86. And ABC’s Fall Guy, with Majors as a stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter, prevailed for five seasons and 113 episodes spanning 1981-86.
If you’re counting, Quincy, Magnum, Knight Rider and Fall Guy accounted for 513 hours of television and 21 combined seasons from 1976-88.
During a 2009 interview with the Archive of American Television, Larson was asked how he could possibly keep up with such a workload.
“I tried to stay with things until I thought they were on their feet and they learned to walk and talk,” he said.
“If you believe in something, you must will it through, because everything gets in the way. Everyone tries to steer the ship off course.”
Battlestar Galactica lasted just one season on ABC from 1978-79, yet the show had an astronomical impact. Starring Lorne Greene and Richard Hatch as leaders of a homeless fleet wandering through space, featuring special effects supervised by Star Wars’ John Dykstra and influenced by Larson’s Mormon beliefs, Battlestar premiered as a top 10 show and finished the year in the top 25. But it was axed after 24 episodes because, Larson said, each episode cost “well over” $1 million.
“I was vested emotionally in Battlestar, I really loved the thematic things. I don’t feel it really got its shot, and I can’t blame anyone else, I was at the center of that,” said Larson, who years earlier had written a sci-fi script, Adam’s Ark, with a theme similar to Battlestar’s and had been mentored by Star Trek’s Gene Coon. “But circumstances weren’t in our favor to be able to make it cheaper or to insist we make two of three two-hour movies [instead of a weekly one-hour series] to get our sea legs.”
Much like Star Trek before it, Battlestar became much more beloved after it was canceled. Universal packaged episodes into two-hour telefilms and added a “Battle of Galactica” attraction to its studio tour that proved hugely popular. A new version debuted in 2004 on the Sci-Fi Channel, followed by a spinoff, Caprica.
Yet for all his success, Larson had his share of critics.
Writer Harlan Ellison, in a 1996 book about his Star Trek teleplay for the famous episode “City on the Edge of Forever,” infamously called him “Glen Larceny,” accusing him of using movie concepts for his TV shows.
It often has been noted that Battlestar premiered soon after Star Wars, that Alias Smith & Jones arrived shortly after Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and that the setups for McCloud and B.J. and The Bear bore similarities to the Clint Eastwood films Coogan’s Bluff and Every Which Way But Loose, respectively.
“Larson is undeniably a controversial figure in TV history because of his reputation for producing video facsimiles of popular films, but scholars, fans and critics should also consider that ‘similarity’ is the name of the game in the fast world of TV productions,” John Kenneth Muir wrote in his 2005 book, An Analytical Guide to Television’s Battlestar Galactica. “Shows are frequently purchased, produced and promoted by networks not for their differences from popular productions, but because of their similarities.”
Fox in 1978 sued Battlestar studio Universal for infringing on Star Wars copyrights but lost the suit years later, vindicating Larson, who described his TV show as “Wagon Train heading toward Earth.”
He also said that Alias Smith & Jones was “certainly in the genre of Butch Cassidy, a New Wave Western” and compared B.J. and the Bear to something along the lines of the 1977 film Smokey & the Bandit.
He was not apologizing for any of this.
“Television networks are a lot like automobile manufacturers, or anyone else who’s in commerce. If something out there catches on with the public … I guess you can call it ‘market research,’ ” he said in the TV Archive interview. “You can go in and pitch one idea at a network and they’ll say, ‘You know, we’d really like it if you had something a little more like this.’ ”
Glen Albert Larson was born an only child on Jan. 3, 1937, in Long Beach, Calif. He and his parents moved to Los Angeles when he was young, and he became enthralled with the art of storytelling while listening to hour after hour of radio shows.
He met Wagner while hitchhiking to Hollywood High and landed a job as a page at NBC, then home to such live anthologies as Lux Video Theatre and Matinee Theatre.
Music took over when Capitol Records A&R exec Nik Venet signed The Four Preps to a long-term contract in 1956, and the wholesome youngsters recorded such hits as “Twenty Six Miles (Santa Catalina),” “Big Man,” “Dreamy Eyes” and “Down by the Station.”
“Ultimately, The Four Preps’ biggest influence can be heard via their impact on Brian Wilson, whose harmony-driven production for The Beach Boys was a direct antecedent of The Four Preps’ sound,” or so says a biography of the group on AllMusic.com.
The Preps appeared on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, played college campuses around the country and toured the world. But with a new wife and child, Larson wanted to get off the road, so he pursued a career in television and sold a story idea for a 1966 episode of The Fugitive.
Larson then wrote an episode of It Takes a Thief, and within the short span of a season he went from story editor to producing the series.
He created his first show, the ABC Western Alias Smith and Jones, which starred Peter Duel and Ben Murphy as outlaw cousins trying to go straight. He exited the series soon after Duel died of a self-inflicted gunshot on New Year’s Eve in 1971.
He did not get along with Klugman on Quincy and eventually left the show in the hands of Bellisario.
Selleck, who was under contract at Universal and had done a couple of pilots that had not made it to series, was obligated to do Magnum, whose pilot was written by Bellisario.
“We got the star, it was a perfect fit,” said Larson, who was a fan of the 1960s CBS series Hawaiian Eye, which centered on a detective agency. “I had a house over there [in Hawaii] and a guy [like Selleck’s character] who lived in a guest house and took care of it.”
Larson based the unseen novelist character Robin Masters, the owner of the home, on author Harold Robbins.
After years at Universal — where he also did The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries for ABC and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for NBC — Larson left for Fox. But to get out of his Universal deal, he had to give the studio one more show, and that would be Knight Rider.
“Michael Knight [Hasselhoff’s character] in a way is prototyped by the Lone Ranger,” Larson said. “If you think about him riding across the Plains and going from one town to another to help law and order, then K.I.T.T. becomes Tonto.”
At Fox in the spring of 1983, he sold four new series: Manimal to NBC and Trauma Center, Automan and Masquerade to ABC, but all were quickly canceled.
Larson’s next show, CBS’ Cover Up — about a photographer (Jennifer O’Neill) who replaces her late husband as an undercover CIA agent — lasted one season. During production, actor Jon-Erik Hexum died as a result of an accidental self-inflicted blank-cartridge gunshot wound on the set.
In July 2011, Larson sued Universal, alleging a decades-long fraud perpetrated by a studio that he said never once sent him profit participation statements despite his shows earning hundreds of millions of dollars.
More recently, Larson reteamed up with The Four Preps, reuniting in 2004 for a PBS reunion show, Magic Moments, with best friends and fellow group members David Somerville and Bruce Belland.
Survivors include his wife Jeannie, half-brother Kenneth Peterson, a Hollywood prop master, and nine children (including his son James) from former wives Carol Gourley and Janet Curtis: Kimberly, Christopher, Glen, Michelle, David, Caroline, Danielle and Nicole.
A memorial service will be held in the near future, his son said.
Despite his remarkable career churning out hits, Larson earned but three Emmy nominations, two for producing McCloud and one (for outstanding drama) for Quincy. He never won.
His shows, Larson said in the TV Archive interview, “were enjoyable, they had a pretty decent dose of humor. All struck a chord in the mainstream. What we weren’t going to do was win a shelf full of Emmys. We got plenty of nominations for things, but ours were not the kind of shows that were doing anything more than reaching a core audience. I would like to think we brought a lot of entertainment into the living room.”
Alex Ben Block contributed to this report.
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