When is a rip-off not a rip-off? When a TV show is unsuccessfully pitched until the successful film it is supposedly based on causes it to be greenlit. If adventure “homage” has a name, it must be Tales Of The Gold Monkey.
Donald P Bellisario is something of a legend in American television history. The writer / producer/ creator has had a string of commercial and cult successes under his belt, including Quantum Leap, Magnum PI, Airwolf and NCIS. He had been keen to do a new romantic, old-fashioned adventure show that harked back to the classic Hollywood movies of the 1930’s and ’40’s since 1979. The success of Magnum PI and more importantly, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, made his dream a reality, on the ABC Network in 1982. Throughout the show’s run he would be at odds with the producers over its tone- they wanted more “mud people” and outlandish scrapes and peril, while he saw it, above the adventure, being more character driven. Raiders and Monkey do share areas of commonality though.
The crux of the show is the adventures of American Jake Cutter in the South Pacific, circa 1938. Jake (Stephen Collins) is, in Collins’ words, a “soldier of fortune” (even now Collins signs letters to former cast mates and firm friends, J.C S.O.F.). A two-fisted, cigar chomping ex-Flying Tiger with Chennault against the Japanese in China (chronology being played with fast and loose here!), Jake now flies a Grumman Goose, an amphibious cargo plane he rescued and patched up in Shanghai with his mechanic pal Corky (Jeff MacKay). They transport cargo which runs the gamut from bibles to contraband, from vintage wines and medicines, to hidden weapons, around the South Sea Islands. Usually these cargo runs lead them into various scrapes with hostile natives, Nazi spies, slave traders and the encroaching Japanese Empire.
Cutter’s Goose flies out of the lush tropical island of Boragora, where Jake hangs his battered pilot cap above the local watering hole, The Monkey Bar. The proprietor is French Magistrate and charming man of mystery, Bon Chance Louie (Roddy McDowell). Middling singer at the bar and US secret agent is Vassar girl Sarah Stickney White (Caitlin O’Heany). In his travels Jake sometimes crosses (and has to fend off) seductive Princess Koji (Marta DuBois) a half-Irish, half- Japanese Dragon Lady type, head of a trading / criminal empire, and her Bushido influenced minder, Todo (John Fujioka). Local missionary Rev. Willie Tenboom (John Calvin) is a German spy, more interested in administering “private blessings” on the local beauties than serving the Fatherland. Rounding off the cast is Jack (Leo), Jake’s trusty one-eyed terrier – Jack lost his other eye, an opal and inset sapphire, when Jake gambled it and lost in a poker game. Jack hasn’t let Jake forget it.
Stephen Collins was partially inspired by Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, wherein Grant is a tough pilot flying mail packets across the treacherous Peruvian mountain ranges out of Barranca. The city’s name was the source of deadpan radio delivery in the old Warner Bros cartoons: “Calling Barranca.” Spielberg and Lucas used it as the name of the first treacherous guide in Raiders.
The name Jake Cutter came from John Wayne’s Texan Ranger in The Comancheros. Other old movies the show harked back to in style were To Have And Have Not, and Casablanca; with hard boiled guys with a soft centre, and dames spelt D.A.N.G.E.R.
Ron Moody played Louie in the pilot very well, but with the catch-all reason of “creative differences, he was not asked back for the series. Collins recommended his good friend McDowell: “I knew that Roddy was someone who understood the world and style that we were trying to create.” Louie is a charming rogue with a colourful past he occasionally alludes to in passing, such as once climbing with Mallory.
An ex-Foreign Legion mercenary, he was at one point sentenced to death, but a malfunctioning guillotine saw him pardoned by the French Government, and sent to Boragora to govern the ungovernable. He occasionally rubs the neckerchief he never removes at the spot where the blade stopped short.
Corky is “a pretty good mechanic sober and a mean piano player drunk,” said actor Jeff MacKay. He based his characterisation on “Thomas Mitchell in Only Angels Have Wings, Walter Brennan in To Have And Have Not, and Curly Howard of The Three Stooges. I love the helpless, but well-meaning characters such as Mitchell in both movies; I also loved Brennan for his innocence, and of course Curly Howard for his insane sense of humour.” Corky has a habit of just remembering something vitally important at the last minute, usually when Jake’s neck is on the line.
Filming took place at Universal Studios. An entire jungle, complete with waterfall and monkey faced cave was created on the backlot. Second unit exterior and flying scenes took place in Hawaii for the pilot, and shots were reused along with stock footage for the remainder of the series. Originally it was to be called Tales Of The Brass Monkey – thankfully for UK audiences, sniggers were averted.
Director Harvey Leidman enjoyed working on the show. “It had flying, which I loved, and we were in the Goose shooting process shots for two whole days on episodes. There were war scenes, battles, and I got to use vintage equipment. There was even one show with a China Clipper, but the production company just built a door and Albert Whitlock (matte artist) painted the rest of the plane around it (the show featured lots of clever matte shots and rear projection). It was incredibly ambitious.”
Producer Don Baer: “There was one scene on the show when Jack and Jake are captured on a prison Island and the Warden commands his subordinates to shoot the dog…the actor ordered “shoot the dog!” and Leo’s exposed eye widened like a silver dollar right on cue.”
Collins says the reason for the show’s cult following is that “It appealed to people’s sense of fun and adventure. The characters were real and cared about each other. it was funny and it had heart.”
Tales Of The Gold Monkey received four TV Emmy nominations, for costume design, film editing and film sound, and winning for Outstanding Art Direction for the pilot. Other networks were preparing what they could run against it next season, while its host, ABC had no faith in it, failing to run the same favourable audience research that rival NBC did. Brandon Tartikoff, head of NBC told Collins later it could have run as long as MASH. ABC wanted a yes man, and Bellisario wouldn’t budge enough for their liking. To everyone else’s surprise, the show was not renewed.
Director and writer Tom Greene said “I’ve always loved any kind of adventure that was from another time and place. Somehow I have never been much for “right now”. In fact, I like to tell people that I only come back to “reality” as a tourist. Therefore the idea of a world totally into itself is much more exciting than the horrid mess we live in.”
Having recently bought the excellent DVD Complete Series to reaquaint myself with my boyhood memories, I intend to vacation many times on Boragora; to pull up a rattan chair at the fabled Monkey Bar, and while away the hours listening to tall tales from Jake, and murdered standards from Sarah, “As Time Goes By.”
Originally posted 2013-07-31 16:25:11. Republished by Blog Post Promoter