Today, we look at how how Matlock spun off “The Fatman” of Jake and the Fatman, without Jake (but Jake was somehow there…sorta)
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 Fat Man – An overweight district attorney with a hunger for justice
SERIES IT AIRED ON Matlock
Backdoor pilots are obviously a very common idea, but typically, shows are a bit along in their runs before they are used to spin off OTHER shows. That just makes common sense, as a show has to be established before you can rely on it to spin off another show. However, TV legend Fred Silverman tended to be a bit more aggressive about things like that. The peak of that approach was when he and Matlock creator Dean Hargrove did a backdoor pilot in just the FIFTH episode of Matlock, the long-running show starring the iconic Andy Griffith as defense attorney, Ben Matlock. This unusual occurrence was because they already knew Matlock was a hit before it even officially debuted, as the pilot for the series was released as a TV movie that aired in the Spring of 1986, and was a big ratings smash. It was repeated multiple times during the Summer, so they knew the show was going to be popular before its first “official” episode aired in the Fall of 1986.
So while five episodes in is still early, at least it did make more sense than, well, you know, if they HADN’T launched with a hit TV movie in the Spring of 1986.
In any event, the fifth and sixth episodes of Matlock were titled “The Don,” and it had Matlock defending a famous Mafia Don (Jose Ferrer) who is accused of killing a business rival. The man prosecuting the case was the brilliant (and, well, fat) district attorney, James L. McShane, played by the famous actor, William Conrad.
The plan was to then spin McShane into his own TV series.
DID THE PILOT GO TO SERIES? Yes, but with a slight adjustment. Rather than JUST McShane, the show’s concept was re-tooled so that it was about McShane and his lead investigator, Jake Styles, played by Joe Penny. The fascinating thing about THAT is that Joe Penny actually appeared IN “The Don,” as the son of the Don that Matlock defended!
Matlock’s daughter, Charlene (Linda Purl), found herself attracted to Penny’s character, and struggled with feeling that way about a mobbed up guy.
McShane’s name was then changed to McCABE for Jake and the Fatman, which ran for a long time itself (although, amusingly, Matlock outlasted it by a number of seasons despite being the show that launched it).
SHOULD IT HAVE? William Conrad was a great actor, so sure, why 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!).