Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Junk Drawer: Spotlight on "Fantasy Island"

From 1978 to 1984, at 10 pm Saturday night on ABC, viewers by the droves turned into one of the most bizarre programs ever to appear on American television: "Fantasy Island".

The brain child of "The Sultan of Schlock" Aaron Spelling, "Fantasy Island" starred the white suited and always debonair Ricardo Montalban as "Mr. Roarke", the mysterious and all-knowing proprietor of Fantasy Island. At his side was the equally white suited Herve' Villechaize as "Tattoo", Mr. R's loyal second-in-command.

Like any successful TV show, "Fantasy Island" followed a set, rigid formula. Beginning with over head shots of a lush tropical paradise, cameras then cut to Tattoo racing up the steps of a tower, energetically ringing a bell and then exclaiming in his heavy French accent, "Ze plane! Ze plane!"

As if on cue, the employees of Fantasy Island, stylishly attired in native garb, would begin playing steel drums and hula dancing. Mr. Roarke's final words to his staff were always, "Smiles, everybody! Smiles!"

Then the guests would disembark from a sea plane, receive a complimentary lei and choose from a tray of tropical drinks, the type with bendy straws and an umbrella garnish.

While the guests mingled among themselves and sampled the hooch, Tattoo would ask Mr. Roarke their names and what their fantasies were. Every week, it was something different: to be a royal, travel back to the Wild West as a sheriff, meet a historical figure, reconnect with a long-lost love or relative. One gal, dying of an incurable disease, even had as her fantasy to marry Mr. Roarke.

Of course, because our fantasies about a specific situation are often better than the reality, people rarely had a smooth sail on "Fantasy Island". As the various fantasies played out, guests often faced unexpected dangers and usually got what they deserved, not what they wanted. Thus, when their stay on Fantasy Island was over, Mr. Roarke's "dear guests" learned some valuable Life Lessons, which they always thanked him for.

As Montalban and Villechaize were "Fantasy Island"s only stock characters, the show relied heavily on a steady stream of B, C, D and F grade actors to play the program's guests. No doubt grateful to have a job, "Fantasy Island" played host to such acting luminaries as Toni Tenelle, Bob Denver, Loni Anderson, David Doyle, Barbi Benton, Gary Collins, Dack Rambo and Lisa Hartman (before she married Clint)Black.

Even though "Fantasy Island" was suppose to be escapist entertainment, certain episodes were so surreally nutty you couldn't help but wonder if the writers were smoking something funny in the break room.

A perfect example involved Carol Brady herself, Florence Henderson. She was cast as a TV reporter who was being hounded by a mysterious, menacing force: devil worshipping snake charmers. Despite all of Flo's attempts to out wit them, she still wound up in their clutches. The highlight of the episode was a terrified Henderson tied to a tiki, waiting to be sacrificed by the cult's high priest. Just in the nick of time, however, Mr. Roarke arrives to save her and reveal the head of the devil worshipping snake cult: her boyfriend. The snake!

Another priceless episode featured a pre-"Dynasty" Joan Collins as a Cleopatra expert who's fantasy was to travel back to ancient Egypt. This she does, only to be shanghaied into impersonating the Queen of the Nile and enduring make-out sessions with Marc Anthony (Ron Ely, best known as TV's "Tarzan"). The name of this episode was--I kid you not-"My Fair Pharaoh".

As goofy as the above premise seems, casting Collins as Cleopatra actually had cinematic precedent. Back in the 1950's when she was a contract starlet in Hollywood, Collins (who had played a Nile cobra in the hoot fest "Land of the Pharaohs" in 1956) had been cast as Cleopatra in what was to be a modestly budgeted bio of the Nile Queen. Various problems and delays plagued the production and Joan was forced to drop out. Eventually replacing Joan was Elizabeth Taylor, who made movie history for netting a million dollar fee. When "Cleopatra" finally bowed in theaters in 1963, it had become the most talked about, troublesome and expensive movie ever made. In fact, "Cleo" nearly destroyed 20th Century Fox Studios.

Joan's appearance on "Fantasy Island" coincided with a serious down phase in her career. Despite appearing in over 30 films of dubious quality (with titles like "The Sea Wife", "The Opposite Sex" and "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing"), Joan was now supporting herself and husband #3 in horror films like "I Don't Want To Be Born" and "Empire of the Ants". However, all that would end when she was cast as Alexis Carrington on "Dynasty" who's producer was, coincidentally, Aaron Spelling. Although about as realistic as "Fantasy Island", "Dynasty" did revive Joan's career (good), while at the same convincing legions of women to add shoulder pads to their wardrobes (bad).

Despite the apparent success of "Fantasy Island", the show still raised a host of ethical questions that not even the practiced smoothness of Mr. Roarke could paper over. In no particular order they are:

1)How did Mr. Roarke come up with the idea for Fantasy Island in the first place? How did he pitch his idea to investors?

2)How did fantasy Island attract guests? Did they advertise with travel agencies? Did Fantasy Island have a full color brochure?

3)How much did it cost to stay on Fantasy Island? Did it have discounts and group rates? Did a guest's fantasy also include air fare, hotel accommodations and meals?

4)Did guests have to sign a waiver on Fantasy Island so they couldn't sue if they incurred injury during their stay?

5)What kind of vetting process did Mr. Roarke and his staff follow regarding potential fantasies? Were there certain fantasies he wouldn't honor? Also, if a guest had a really bad time on Fantasy Island, could they get their money back?

6)Did guests have to have some elaborate fantasy or could their fantasy just be to spend a nice quiet weekend wind surfing?

7)Did the employees of Fantasy Island belong to a union? Did they have to sign a confidentiality agreement upon being hired? What kind of benefits package did they have?

8)Just what, exactly, was Tattoo's job? Mr. Roarke often treated him like a wayward child and he appeared to have little administrative responsibilities. Other than chasing after the hula dancers, he didn't really do much.

"Fantasy Island" was yet another jewel in the crown of Sultan of Schlock Aaron Spelling and a nail in the coffin for intelligent television. Besides "Fantasy Island", Spelling also gave us "The Mod Squad", "Charlie's Angel's", "The Love Boat", "Dynasty", "Hotel", "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Models, Inc". As bad as these show were, undoubtedly the worst productions Spelling was involved in were his children, Tori and Randy. Horse-faced and deeply untalented, these two tots regularly popped up on dad's shows, amazing viewers with their inept attempts to act. By far the worst of the two was daughter Tori, who played the dim-witted Donna on "90210" and continues to terrorize thinking people on her reality show "Dean and Tori".

As even all good things must come to an end, "Fantasy Island" shut its doors after six years. Attempts to remake the show in syndication (with "A Clockwork Orange"s Malcolm McDowell as Mr. Roarke) tanked, just as it should have. Viewers can catch the original in reruns, where they can marvel at how something so goofy and terribly acted managed to say in the Top Ten for so long.