Today, we look at how how Magnum, p.i. tried to spin off its hard-boiled detective character, Luther Gillis, but at least Gills kept coming back after it failed!
This is Back Door Blues, a feature about “backdoor pilots.” Backdoor pilots are episodes of regular TV series that are intended to also work as pilots for a new series. Sometimes these pilots get picked up, but a lot of times they did not get picked up. I’ll spotlight examples of both successful and failed backdoor pilots.
December is a month of Back Door Blues!
CONCEPT: The Files of Luther Gillis – An old school private detective having to deal with feeling like the world has passed him by in the 1980s
SERIES IT AIRED ON Magnum, p.i.
Early in Season 4 of Magnum, p.i., about Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck), a retired Naval intelligence officer who decided to enjoy a bit of a second childhood (as he spent a chunk of his 20s in Vietnam, including a stint in a P.O.W. camp) in his late 30s, by becoming a private detective in Hawaii, while living in the guest house of a palatial Hawaiian estate owned by a millionaire who hired Magnum as his security consultant (Magnum would then borrow the rich guy’s fancy stuff, including his iconic Ferrari), there was an episode called “Luther Gillis: File #521.”
Veteran character actor Eugene Roche (who you’ll be seeing on my Classic 70s Christmas countdown in a prominent Christmas episode later this month) played Luther Gillis, a private investigator in Hawaii from St. Louis looking for a runaway girl. The girl’s mother has hired Magnum to find her. The shtick with Gillis was that he was an old school gumshoe, right out of a 1950s detective film, which, of course, makes him very much out of place in the 1980s. So think a lot of gags about him not understanding modern technology, stuff like that. While also seeing him approach his cases like he’s IN a 1950s detective movie!
As it turns out, he’s the FATHER of the runaway girl (his ex hired Magnum). Everything works out, but later in the season, Luther returns in an episode appropriately titled “The Return of Luther Gillis,” for a private investigators convention in Hawaii (I’ll have a future bit about that convention some day. It played an interesting role in a later episode). He and Magnum tangle with each other once more, but also his loyal secretary (and love interest), Blanche, is with him (played by Sheree North). That second appearance was intended as backdoor pilot for a Luther Gillis series.
DID THE PILOT GO TO SERIES? No. However, while most characters introduced in backdoor pilots never show up again, Luther returned to Magnum, p.i. for episodes in Season 5 and then Seasons 7 and 8 (Season 7 was initially the farewell season, so Luther came back for one final farewell, and when the show was renewed surprisingly, he then came back the next year for an ACTUAL final farewell episode, literally the penultimate episode of the whole series).
SHOULD IT HAVE? I mean, I would have watched it! But I tend to think Luther Gillis is probably a “best experienced in small servings” type of character, so probably not.
Okay, that’s it for this installment of Back Door Blues! I KNOW the rest of you have suggestions for other interesting backdoor pilots, so drop me a line at email@example.com (don’t suggest in the comments, as this way, it’ll be a surprise!).