Bill Bixby Remembered by Friends & Co-Workers – including Our Own LB
Back in the dim, dark 1970s, before most TVWriter™ visitors were even imagined, let alone born, our founder, Larry Brody, got his first TV writing staff job on a little-remembered series called The Magician.
At the beginning of the 2018 holiday season while Team TVWriter™ was beginning its vacation, LB was contacted by entertainment journalist Ed Gross and interviewed for a piece Ed was writing for Closer Weekly on the late Bill Bixby, star of The Incredible Hulk (where he shared the titular role with Lou Ferrigno), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, My Favorite Martian, and several more series including, yep, that self-same The Magician.
With The Courtship of Eddie’s Father ending in 1972, the following year Bill on the part of Anthony “Tony” Blake, described by Wikipedia as a playboy philanthropist who used his skills to solve difficult crimes as needed.
“This was supposed to be Bill Bixby’s breakthrough into dramatic television. Fresh off The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Bixby was considered a top audience draw when The Magician premiered in 1973,” Ed [Robertson] writes at tvparty.com. “Both NBC and Paramount Pictures had high hopes for this light action drama about a troubleshooting illusionist named Anthony Blake. But fate intervened, in the form of a Writers Guild strike in the spring of ’73 that threw a wrench in production schedules throughout television… The strike didn’t settle until late in the summer, effectively wiping out the early months of prep time that can often make or break a new series.”
…As Ed explains in his article, the network and studio saw Blak as a “modern-day swashbuckler,” while Bill “wanted a show with more of an aesthetic appeal, particularly with regard to how the magic was performed each week.”
Larry Brody was among the second batch of writers brought in when the staff went through a shake-up. “[Producer] Paul Playdon’s idea was to forget about reality and make the villains as over the top as the hero, which I loved,” Larry enthuses. “I was a kid in my mid-20s, and this was my first staff gig, so I looked forward to what seemed like pure fun, letting my imagination roam and bringing the medium something. The good news was that we did indeed to get use our wildest imagination. The bad news was that because this was a mid-season revamp, we had absolutely no time to properly prepare. We had to jump in and turn out script after script pretty much in real time.”
He admits that he started the show a fan of Bill, but didn’t leave that way. “Because of our time crunch,” Larry reflects, “Bixby didn’t get to see many complete scripts; mostly just the next day’s pages. I was so busy writing that I never went on set and so never officially met him. The only times I saw him were at dailies, when he would come in with an entourage — a secretary, a valet, and serving tray with a bottle of wine and some glasses — and, not speaking to anybody else, sit at the front of the room and play sophisticated movie star, sipping and watching yesterday’s scenes….”
Explains Larry, “Before this show, I’d liked Bixby as an actor, because, to me, he had the perfection combination of comic timing and ‘serious drama actor’ looks. I think he made the best he could of his talents, but he couldn’t really light up the screen, because of the script situation. Bixby made his contempt for the writing staff known throughout the half season by never even bothering to learn a lot of the dialog, preferring to ad lib and encouraging the other actors to do the same. The result was that key information — the reason a scene even existed — often got omitted during the filming, which meant that we had to try and shoehorn it into the next set of pages ad hope the info reached the screen the next day.
“I don’t believe that this was entirely Bixby’s fault, by the way,” he emphasizes. “Paul Playdon had experience as a writer on Mission: Impossible, but as far as I know, he’d never produced before. And David Chase and I were pretty much noobs to the industry. Bixby didn’t reach out to us with his concerns, and we didn’t know how to reach out to him. In terms of the storylines, and what we used to call the ‘all running, jumping, and no standing still’ look of The Magician, the series was solid, but with more communication and genuine collaboration between the writing staff and the star, it could have been much, much better.”