Buck Rogers: Interview with Glen Larson

HOLLYWOOD – An experienced Universal Studio employee shakes his head in bewilderment:   “That Buck Rogers of ours is bringing in just piles of money. I don’t know why–there are good films around that aren’t making a dime. And the studio is expecting Battlestar Galactica to do as well as Buck Rogers.” Adding to the staffer’s perturbation is that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which since its March premiere has grossed a reported $20 million, and Battlestar Galactica, which opens at some 400 theaters across the country on Friday, both started out as projects designed for television.

Indeed, though the Battlestar coming to theaters is spiced up with a Sensurround aural track, it is basically a condensed version of the three-hour science-fiction pilot telecast by ABC last September; the series has just been scrubbed from the network’s fall schedule, but who can predict the vagaries of movie-goers’ tastes? Glen A. Larson, the 40-year-old producer responsible for these two films and a string of TV series (such as McCloud, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the current Quincy and B.J. and the Bear), thinks that “Battlestar” will do just fine at the box office because science fiction is still potent in its appeal.

Sitting in his office under the shadow of “The Black Tower,” as the Universal headquarters building is known, Mr. Larson says the studio test-marketed the film version of Battlestar Galactica and found that “people who like this stuff really like it. “An overseas release has done well; in London, Battlestar Galactica broke a house record recently set by Grease. In addition, while conceding no new footage was created for the film, he promises American audiences will see a “dynamically and esthetically” different product than the TV version, in part because of “third generation” sound equipment that Mr. Larson thinks will make all the blastoffs and landings more exciting. As he says, without even a trace of wryness, “It will be much more fulfilling and satisfying to watch the end of a civilization in a theater, in Sensurround, than in your living room.” If he is right — if Battlestar even approaches the box-office orbit of Buck Rogers — Mr. Larson will have notched up a unique industry achievement: he will have broken the old rule that says a property will not translate from the small home screen to the neighborhood theater or drive-in.

What does Mr. Larson offer, in his film and TV productions, that is such an audience draw? Laughter, he says. Looking past the glass jar on his desk that is labeled “cyanide” but contains candy, he says the common denominator of such projects as McCloud, Quincy and his campy science-fiction films is “dark humor.” But beyond the confines of his dark-wood, Muzak-filled office, some industry observers are less kind. It is said that most of Mr. Larson’s projects can be traced back to another source: the short-lived TV series Alias Smith and Jones to the Newman-Redford film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; McCloud to Clint Eastwood’s Coogan’s Bluff; The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew to the kid’s books; Buck Rogers to the original comic strip; the NBC series B.J. and the Bear, about a truck driver and his chimpanzee pal, to Clint Eastwood’s 1978 Every Which Way But Loose, about a truck driver and his chimpanzee pal; and Battlestar Galactica to Star Wars.

The accusation has followed Mr. Larson around for years and has made him, he admits, “kind of sensitive.” He quickly points out that he became involved with McCloud as a writer after the pilot had been filmed, and was not, therefore, responsible for whatever similarities it displayed to an earlier film. He says that B.J. and the Bear was completed a year before it aired — before Mr. Eastwood’s film was underway. And he will not discuss Battlestar Galactica vis-a-vis Star Wars because George Lucas, creator of the most potent box-office hit ever, is suing over the similarities between Battlestar and his film, and the legions of lawyers working on the case have advised Mr. Larson to remain silent. But Mr. Larson dismisses the critics who claim it is just the latest example of his unoriginal thinking: “It’s a compliment, actually, because it means you’re thinking in the mainstream. The actual incidence of coincidence is so high that you’d have to sit on the side of the desk, to listen to how nine out of 10 writers have the same idea, to believe how bad it gets.”

Instead, he prefers to fret about whether Universal is marketing his two films correctly. Buck Rogers, made as an NBC mini-series but sold back to Universal as a consolation prize after the network, under new head Fred Silverman, canceled several of the studio’s novels-for-TV, was given a “saturation release”–it opened in more theaters than Jaws and The Sting. But Mr. Larson thinks the film’s advertising campaign was “too narrow.” The brass underestimated the potential of Buck Rogers as an adult piece; they aimed the TV ads at a young television buy. Saturday Mornings and all that. They wanted to get in and out of the theaters quick. “And since it was originally targeted for TV, they thought they wouldn’t get good critical response. To our annoyance and the studio’s surprise, they were wrong. We got exceptional reviews. We got what you’d call ‘money reviews.’

Had Buck Rogers been sold like Superman was sold, they could have quadrupled their grosses.” That last bit of multiplication may be open to debate, but Universal has clearly changed its plans for marking the film version of Battlestar Galactica. The initial thought, several months back, was to release it only in Canada and overseas. But the film’s performance there, combined with the showing of Buck Rogers in the US, convinced Universal to spring for such advertisements as a mammoth billboard on Sunset Boulevard and in Los Angeles, posters on the rumps of many of the city’s buses.

Mr. Larson has had what appears to be easy success in several fields — on stage (before entering TV, he was for 10 years a member of The Four Preps singing group), in television and now in films. And he fully intends to make matters even worse in the future for those who envy him: Mr. Larson is currently working on:

* A second year of B.J. and the Bear, as well as a spin-off series from it titled The Misadventures of Lobo;

* A Buck Rogers TV series for NBC’s fall schedule;

* A second Battlestar Galactica feature film for the European market [Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack], using “what we’ve already shot for TV and some new footage. And though the TV “Battlestar” series has been canceled, ABC recently asked Mr. Larson for a two-hour TV movie “in which Battlestar Galactica discovers the planet Earth.”

The producer will not deny the possibility that this could serve as a pilot for a reborn TV series, especially since at least one ABC affiliate has been picketed by youngsters demanding that the show be reinstated.

At the moment, Mr. Larson has no original feature film planned. But once his current projects either dry up or begin functioning on automatic pilot, he wants to concentrate more on comedy — leading, perhaps, to the legitimate stage. “I’d love to do a musical comedy on Broadway someday,” says Mr. Larson, who in addition to his singing career helped create the theme music for both B.J. and the Bear and Battlestar. “I know how to work a crowd. I just came back from New York, where I saw a couple of shows I loved. But I saw some others that make me think I might be up to the challenge.”