Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Battle of the Network Stars - 1977

It's a sad day here at The Popcorn Trick.

About 11 seconds after ejecting the DVD holding the epic 1976 Battle of the Network Stars, I scrambled over to the homemade case of DVDs boasting the entire BotNS series to throw in the next Battle from February, 1977.

As my DVDs weren't clearly labeled (2 DVDs came in an envelope labeled "1 & 2;" after that, my supplier obviously assumed I didn't need any more specifics and I was left to sift through a pile of identical, unlabeled DVDs) I simply grabbed the next one out of the box and hit play.

It was not the February 1977 battle.

After checking wikipedia to get a list of the players involved in each of the battles, I meticulously went through each DVD checking for this now elusive 1977 battle. No luck. Dejected, I realized while I should have 19 DVDs, I counted only 18. Thinking perhaps my brother was playing a cruel joke on me (actually hoping, since it would mean I could recover the lost episode) I called him. No luck there either.

After countless emails to the original seller went unanswered, I found myself retelling this story to a coworker (it's an exciting office!) one day. He mentioned he had the exact same set and would happily lend me his DVDs to allow me to copy the missing ep. and complete the set. Overjoyed, I took him up on his generous offer.

Now, I'm unsure what it is exactly I've done to insult whatever god or being or power that controls this universe, but it must have been something egregious, because upon checking my coworkers DVDs, I saw that he too had the same 18 count that I had. Still I ran through his, in meek hope that he might be missing a different episode. Still no luck.

So it is here I sit, a broken man, missing what I deem an essential episode in the Battle canon. Essential, as it returns the captains (Kaplan, Conrad, Savala), the key players (Hatch, Dobson, Ron Howard et al) and also introduces some new, larger than life participants. But that's not the half of it. I think this missing DVD also contains the evidence of one of the biggest conspiracies since Van Duren found himself with the answers before the taping. Evidence? Read on...

As you can see here on the wikipedia page for Battle of the Network Stars, every episodes cast is listed. Now compare the casts for 1976 and 1977...seems innocent enough until you get to NBC. The only returning players are Robert Conrad and Karen Grassle (who, if you remember in the 1976 controversial running race, "misremembered" what happened, supporting Conrad's version of the race). Unusual to say the least, but shows get picked up in the Fall and there may have been a larger turnaround to allow a new crew of actors to sign up. Except for one thing - only three months had gone by between the 1976 battle and the February 1977 Battle.

After watching Conrad's maniacal performance in the original Battle, it wouldn't surprise me if he had actually gone to the NBC executives and handpicked his team from the stable of stars. Dan Haggerty alone (Grizzly Man), could ensure a huge point swing into NBC's favor (as we'll see in the next Battle). Add Kurt Russell and W.K. Stratton (co-star of Conrad's on Baa Baa Black Sheep) and suddenly this crackpot theory gains some momentum.

Sadly, as of right now, I don't have the video footage I need to confirm my beliefs. I'm not even sure who won in February 1977, which obviously would be damning evidence if it happened to be NBC. All I have are DVDs of every other Battle, so instead of crying about this anymore (which I've done plenty of behind the scenes) I'll simply move forward, starting with the November 1977 Battle.

Battle of the Network Stars - 1977

Good news and bad news at the beginning. The good news is that all three captains are back. The bad news is that Conrad has demoted himself to simply a participant, and Telly Savalas is not competing, rather he has been given the role of oil to Cosell's water as a co-host of the festivities. Actually, this probably isn't bad news as it gives Savalas' wit more room to roam. I couldn't be happier with the current setup.

The Teams

Gabe Kaplan (captain)
Fred Berry (???)
Billy Crystal
Chris DeRose
Victor French
Cheryl Ladd
Kristy McNichol
Penny Marshall
Suzanne Somers
Parker Stevenson

Dan Haggerty (captain)
Robert Conrad
Elinor Donahue
Patrick Duffy
Peter Isacksen
Lance Kerwin
Donna MIlls
Belinda Montgomery
Michelle Phillips
Larry Wilcox

Jimmie Walker (captain)
Adrienne Barbeau
Valerie Bertinelli
Kevin Dobson
Jamie Farr
Caren Kaye
James MacArthur
James Vincent McNichol
Loretta Swit
Lyle Waggoner

(Quick aside: This is Loretta Swit's 3rd appearance, and I think I've seen her a combined 4 seconds on screen. Unless she was the lynchpin of the February team, it seems to me she probably lived about 5 minutes away from Pepperdine and liked picking up checks.)

The show starts out with "network executives" getting down to business and speaking of the seriousness of this battle. Jimmie Walker is positioned early as having a yacht. It's hard for me to believe. Finally the familiar, dulcet tones of Howard Cosell come on and after we're treated to the introduction of Telly Savalas as a co-host (along with the returning Bruce Jenner (who surprisingly does a good job of mixing subtle humor and actual analysis in his commentating) and David Marr (who collects a paycheck for 6 minutes of work on the golf event and is never seen again)) we're ready to get started.

Event #1: Swimming Relay

Roger Goodman stays with his recipe and gives us nice tight shots of Adrienne Barbeau in a swimsuit. I'm guessing her contract stipulates she be involved in the swimming event regardless of her swimming ability. Glancing at the male competitors it appears many of them have shaved their chest; whether it's for the race or normal grooming practices for Hollywood stars of the 70s is unclear. What is clear is that Jamie Farr did not shave his chest. Or maybe he did and it just came in thicker...a lot thicker.

As ABC wins going away, on the strength of Parker Stevenson, a graduate of Princeton University and a member of their crew team (I predict we'll be seeing him in the rowing competition), Cosell informs us NBC captain Dan Haggerty recently fell off his motorcycle riding over 50 mph.

Event #2: The Obstacle Course

Nary a change has been made to the course which is just the way I like it. That way, runs from previous competitions can be measured against one another, and there are no variables involved. The surprisingly adept Penny Marshall is back, but she faces some stiff competition in Michelle Phillips, who we're informed was a member of the Mamas and the Papas. Not the one that enjoyed ham sandwiches.

Regardless, Michelle Phillips starts off great, before hurdling herself into the wall, and possibly hurting her ankle. It's unclear just how badly she's hurt, as she runs again in the next heat and ultimately wins the whole shebang. Cosell throws it down to Savalas to see if he can get any answers, but he replies, "When a girl's running, I look at other things..." Ok, so he won't be winning any investigative journalist awards, but can you blame him?

On the men's side of things, Cosell slowly builds up the legend of Billy Crystal's athletic prowess, seconds before we see him falter on every obstacle on the course, and finish dead last.

That sets up Patrick Duffy and Jim McNichol in the finals (and I'm pretty sure both McNichol siblings wished they hadn't performed on the Mike Douglas show, as we're treated to a little bit of that trainwreck), where Duffy sets a new course record of 19.9 seconds.
So, after two events, all three networks are tied with 150 points.

Event #3: Bowling

Bowling? I guess it's a sport. Anyway, here's the first place we see Savalas openly rooting for CBS, as he gives Barbeau advice. Of course, he also might just want to be close to Barbeau, and who can blame him?

I'm also pretty sure that Vegas wouldn't take your bet if you wanted odds on Conrad bowling without a shirt.

Because bowling is inherently boring as a televised sport, the producers are left to find other ways to kill time, and so we're treated to Crystal's first Muhamed Ali impression (I'm pretty sure he's contractually obligated to do this). Afterward he does pick up a ridiculous split for a spare so there's that. NBC winds up winning vaulting them into the overall lead.

Event #4: Rowing

Though I never want to question Kaplan's strategy, he puts Parker Stevenson 2nd in the rowing competition. He might be the only out there that has actually been in a boat! Of course, my questioning looks silly as ABC wins the race by a full pool length. We also are treated to a rare Loretta Swit appearance, as she stands by the pool and cheers.

Event #5: Golf

Ahh, here's where we get the expert insight of Favid Marr's commentary. Aside from some slow motion golf shots of the ladies and Jamie Farr, the highlight of the golf event is the profile on Fred Berry, which begins at a place called Disco 9000 in New York. There's Berry on the dance floor, showing off moves for everyone. He also suggests one of his favorite hobbies is horseback riding, which I take as a joke, but Cosell takes with complete seriousness. I'm unsure who's right.

Somehow ABS wins, and CBS and NBC tie.

Event #6: Running

Always a crowd pleaser is the running relay. The teams are introduced, with Kevin Dobson seemingly having the same disposition as a serial killer dismembering a prostitute. I'd hate to be his teammate.

Kaplan employs a brilliant strategy of having his women run their legs first, and anchoring them with the men, which of course works and has ABC dominating the race. For some reason Chris DeRose (pardon me if I have no idea what show he is from) runs the last leg of the race in bare feet. I have no idea. I was also disappointed to see neither Kaplan nor Conrad compete, but I think there's too much honest to goodness tension there and it would have ended poorly. So ABC wins with NBC second and CBS bringing up the rear. We now get an overall score update, with ABC in the lead with 525 points, NBC with 437.5 points and CBS with 387.5 points.

Wait, what?

I have no idea where half points came into play, or how why the scores appear to be so random. It was explained earlier in the show that first place received 100 points, second 75, and third 50. But the score were flashed up on screen, with nary a comment from Cosell, Savalas, Jenner, or Marr (and you would think Marr could be doing something at this point, since his only work so far has been 38 seconds of golf commentary explaining how he thought the celebrities would have a difficult time chipping. Thanks for coming Marr).

Event #7: Dunk Tank

I'm a little worries when the dunk tank starts, as the last time it was on, it dragged on forever. However, by the third Battle, it seems Goodman got the knack of filming this event, and cut it down significantly, which is good, because there are only so many times Jamie Farr can get dunked before it loses all value of entertainment.

That's not to say we don't get to see Jamie Farr get dunked a lot.
Farr, in a speedo, a collared shirt and what may or may not be a life vest made of hair underneath, gamely steps into the booth for CBS, with ABC up to throw. Immediately, the integrity of the event gets called into question as a Penny Marshall misses the target, yet Jamie Farr still gets dunked. I think after the original battle, when the target had to be hit with a missle for someone to fall in, the producers may have tweaked it. Anyway, it is here, in the seventh event where we are introduced to this battle's celebrity commissioner, Frank Robinson. I'm not sure what his responsibilities are, but there you go. He certainly doesn't seem fazed by the questionable hair trigger dunk tank. ABC wins again, and now the scores after 7 are:

ABC 625
NBC 500
CBS 450

Yeah, I have no idea either.

Event #8: Football

Oh, glorious football. I assume with the popularity of Monday Night Football, everyone figured they could cash in by introducing this into the competition. Basically you have a QB and 2 receivers who go out and try to score a touchdown, with defenders. QB can only be rushed after a 3 second count, which is a non-factor.

Barbeau looks visibly nervous receiving instruction from Dobson before the start of the first heat. ABC takes on CBS and were treated to only highlights. It appears Kaplan (QB) took apart the CBS defense.

That leaves CBS and NBC to battle it out to see who goes up against ABC in the finals. Dobson starts at QB and starts throwing 10 yard outs to his receivers, well short of the endzone. Sure, the catches score him some points (2 for each catch) but since touchdowns are worth 5, it hardly seems like a wise strategy.

Dan Haggerty proves me right by basically throwing 2 touchdowns and beating CBS. In the finals, while ABC makes a valiant effort (Marshall and Ladd drop 2 in the endzone!) but no one can figure out how to stop Isacksen and his 8'4" height. It's no contest and NBC wins an gets the honor of taking on ABC in the tug 'o war.

Event #9: Tug 'o War

Here's a beautiful are the standings heading into the tug 'o war:

ABC 700
NBC 600
CBS 500

So, if NBC wins, there would be a tie for first place. However, in the BotNS bylaws, in the event of a tie, the team with the most individual first place finishes is declared the winner. Actually, I have no idea if there are BotNS bylaws, but Cosell explained this as though there were, so let's go with it. So ABC wins, regardless of the tug 'o war outcome. Of course, everyone still wants a tug 'o war, so the producers on the spot ante up $1000 per player for the winner of this event. I love it! No controversy, no silly judgement calls...they just throw more money at them.

Looking at the squads, the early money favorites are NBC. Dan Haggerty might be able to win by himself. The man has a physique. On the other side yo have people like Billy Crystal and Parker Stevenson...athletes to be sure, but c'mon.

And the paper champion also is the real champion as NBC demolishes the smaller ABC team and wins themselves an extra $1000. I'm also pretty sure Dan Haggerty is half bear.
Conrad gets interviewed and he announces his retirement, saying it's a young man's sport. I have a sneaking suspicion however that this isn't the last we'll see of this wild man.

And so winds up another Battle, with ABC on top again. While not nearly as much controversy as the initial battle, this one still had plenty of entertainment value and plenty to talk about. Sadly, this also appears to be the last one Telly Savalas participated in. Mr. Savalas, you will be missed.

For your enjoyment - a lovely Cheryl Ladd montage from this episode. Though she didn't do much, it's never a bad thing to enjoy watching Cheryl Ladd...


Mel said...

Keep these coming! It's great reliving one of the highlights of my childhood television viewing life!

Goose said...

Glad you enjoy them and don't worry...I plan on doing all 19!

Anonymous said...

19? so you found the Feb 77 tape????

I'm surprised Kaplan captained ABC to victory.

Chus said...

This is what I think: Penny Marshall

Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember--or have video of the interview with Cosell and Robert Conrad on the Network Stars when Conrad was speaking about his charitable side and talked of working with "retards." Use the reference a couple time--simply classic...please if you have it put up the link.

Louise said...

I bought a set, too, and knew upfront #2 is missing. No one out there has it yet. NBC won that show, so Conrad and team got even, which was great. I know they won, because in #5 which I watched, Cosell summed up the winners for the first 4 shows. Conrad and team also won in #5. So, at least I had a taste of what it was like beating ABC in #2, but it must have been sweeter since it was right after that #1 show protest which was bull, in my opinion. Like Conrad said, they accomodated CBS with how the race was run. NBC really wanted dead starts. Ben Murphy wasn't 100 feet behind like Savalas said, but about 20. Like Conrad said to Bruce Jenner who knows, you line up with you runner. So, taking that win away from NBC was stupid. Also, when it comes to the charity stuff Conrad was doing, it was not for retards. The segment was shown in show #5 where Conrad used his spare time outside of acting to coach boys school football.

Anonymous said...

I know that segment, there was another where he clearly was using "retards" to describe the charity work he was doing........please, if someone has it would they let me know what episode it was.........I know it's out there just not sure which one......please help!!!

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Anonymous said...

It was Gil Gerard who spoke about his work with "retards".