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Picture this: a glossy American series where a hunky British actor fights crime, the twist being that he has a unique way of getting out of trouble – he can turn into any animal he chooses (usually a black panther) by looking constipated. Sound like a winner, doesn’t it? Yes, if you thought we were scraping the barrel with our retrospective on Blue Thunder: The Series in SFX, has Jon Abbott got a treat for you…
Created by Glen A Larson, master of gimmick TV, Manimal was a short- lived blend of fantasy series and crime show – just one of a large number of such shows that came and went in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It starred British actor Simon MacCorkindale, reasonably well known in the UK for assorted TV series (most interestingly as scientist Joe Kapp in the 1979 Quatermass serial), films (such as Death on the Nile and the 1978 adaptation of Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands), and being married to actress Susan George. MacCorkindale’s career, though promising at one point, never really took off, and choices like Manimal ought begin to explain why…
MacCorkindale played one Jonathan Chase, a wealthy anthropologist who taught “animal behavioural science” at New York University, and moonlighted as a consultant to the NYPD. Of course, his crime fighting activities were secretly much more substantial – and greatly aided by his unique ability to transform himself into a variety of animals, which he used to bring criminals to justice Batman-style. Only two people knew his secret – young policewoman Brooke McKenzie (Melody Anderson), and Tyrone Earle (Michael D Roberts), a friend of Chase with whom he’d shared time in Vietnam.
There was, of course, no reason why the clearly British Chase would have been anywhere near Vietnam, except for the fact that this had become a compulsory biographical detail for all leads in early ’80s American TV drama. These were the boom years for action adventure shows, many of which were laced with sci-fi elements to distinguish them from the crowd. It was a field dominated by three producers – Stephen J Cannell, Glen A Larson, and Donald Bellisario. Larson’s offerings were the simplest of the three, often inspired by movie hits, and also included Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, The Pall Guy, Sword of justice, BJ and the Bear, Switch, and the first draft of Magnum p.i.
Manimal’s 70-minute pilot episode was directed by Russ Mayberry (a veteran of many of the better ’70s crime shows, including Kojak, Harry O and The Rockford Files), from a script by Larson and co-creator/co-producer Don Boyle. It was, by and large, a competent and tightly edited production – a mixture of monster films like Jekyll and Hyde and An American Werewolf in London, and James Bond. It under-used its strong guest cast, including Lloyd Bochner, Ed Lauter and Lara Parker, although it partially made up for it by throwing in a few genuine surprises, largely provoked by the outrageous premise and the novelty of the special effects. One amusing moment had Melody Andersen’s policewoman character furtively conversing with a snake, under the impression it’s our hero, only to have the human Professor Chase walk through the door – at which point she promptly faints away! This was a genuinely funny moment, but there were too few of them in the subsequent series.
Manimal was very obviously filmed back- to-back with sister show Automan (about a cop who partners a computer-generated hologram!), even to the point of using the same sets, guest actors, and, in one case, the same scene (an exploding taxi booby-trap!). For a while, it seemed Larson might be on the brink of a multi-show operation like that of Irwin Alien in the ’60s, or Stephen Cannell in the ’80s, but no – both shows were too formulaic to catch the imagination, and soon success began to wane.
With the rapid demise of Manimal (after seven episodes) and Automan (after 13), the networks naturally became a little sceptical of Larson’s shows – essentially Saturday morning cartoons writ large – and his output began to disappear from the schedules. Indeed, Larson’s only other fantasy show for the ’80s was to be the similarly short-lived The Highwayman (Knight Rider with a giant, futuristic truck), starring Sam (Flash Gordon) Jones, Jane (V) Badler and Tim (Star Trek: Voyager) Russ. The general consensus of opinion is that the likes of Cannell succeeded where Larson largely failed because Cannell’s shows made the effort to add a degree of wit to their equally formulaic adventure proceedings, widening the appeal beyond their natural juvenile audience. Or, put more simply, they were just better.
Larson had a James Bond/Burt Reynolds fixation, and the heroes of all his shows tended to be based primarily on one or the other character. In Professor Jonathan Chase what we got was little more than a variation on the Roger Moore-era 007.
MacCorkindale had showed some promise in earlier roles (he was in British TV’s Jesus of Nazareth, and had made a likeable leading man in The Riddle of the Sands, et al.), but reverted to type as the smoothie Chase. It wasn’t one of his most distinguished performances. But if Chase had no real depth or background, the supporting cast were even less well-served, being little more than lifeless cardboard cut-outs. Still, the cast must have had some kind of magic – after all, one British reviewer was mystically transformed into a cat while penning copy. “MacCorkindale’s wrinkle is to turn himself into a whole series of animals just by exercising what appears to be deep thought…” he wrote, “but it is nice to see Simon – scarcely our most distinguished export to Hollywood – make something of himself, since the metamorphosis to actor is clearly beyond him!” Meeeoww!!
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Simon MacCorkindale, a classically trained British actor whose early credits had shown promise, made some bad choices in Hollywood. He put in a stint on Falcon Crest (1985-7), starred in The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) and Jaws 3D (1983), and, today, is just as likely to be spotted playing Macbeth on stage as he is to be caught on a Dukes of Hazzard re-run – both of which can be found on his resume. He once told The Daily Express that the reason he’d signed on for Manimal was that he assumed he’d be off-screen most of time while animal actors and their wranglers did the hard stuff! Instead, he found himself enduring hours in the make-up chair for the transformations, during which his face would puff up and blow out while he metamorphosed painfully into the latest episode’s guest creature. He’s not exactly high profile today.
Melody Anderson, who played his platonic cop partner Brook McKenzie, had co-starred as Dale Arden in the 1980 feature Flash Gordon, and appeared in an episode of Larson’s Battlestar Galactica. Michael D Roberts, a frequent TV guest star and Larson show regular, was best known in the ’70s as the Huggy Bear clone “Rooster” in the cop show Baretta. Another TV regular was Reni Santoni, who’d been Clint Eastwood’s doomed partner in Dirty Harry (1971), and spent the next 20 years in station-house roles on nearly every cop show going.
Manimal was one of his a rare stabs at an on-going series role, despite being typecast yet again as the “cop friend.” However, perhaps the best actor the series attracted was Glynn Tunnan, most recently seen in the undeserving sitcom A Different World, who played Tyrone Earl in the pilot episode. Sadly, he didn’t become a series regular.
SO. WAS IT ANY GOOD?
Manimal’s gimmick was the fact it showed Jonathan Chase transforming into his animal alter egos. The film An American Werewolf in London had recently shown it could be done convincingly, while the success of The Incredible Hulk TV show had demonstrated that a transforming hero had series potential. From the beginning, however; it was clear credibility was not a factor with Manimal – the size of the animals Chase turned into certainly wasn’t a limiting factor, for a start (no explanation was made as to where the extra mass would come from when turning into something big, or where the rest of MacCorkindale’s body went when he transformed into something small, for instance). Clothes would rend and tear, but, mysteriously, when our hero returned in classic Clark Kent “What-did-I-miss?” fashion, his attire was always immaculate. In this respect, with Professor Chase often coming round face down in the mulch after a transformation, his reaction was often like that of a man reviving after a drunken spree – but with the advantage of finding his clothing fully presentable!
Beyond the “amazing” transformations, there was little else to Manimal, and once the novelty had worn off, viewers drifted away. The casting was “paint-by-numbers,” and the plots mere variations on your standard action- adventure scenarios. Interestingly enough, one of the great ironies of the ill-informed “violence- on-TV” debacle is that of all the ’80s action- adventure shows from the Cannell-Larson- Bellisario camp, it was the most successful and prominent – The A-Team – that took all the flack from the save-the-children brigade. In fact, as even the show’s detractors will admit, hardly anybody ever gets hurt in that show, whereas the likes of Manimal, Blue Thunder and Airwolf all demonstrated an amusing penchant for sadism that sailed over most people’s heads.
That said, of course, Manimal himself never participated in the mayhem, which was the sole prerogative of the bad guys. If he was a panther, he would never rip anyone to shreds, but instead just run out in front of their car. He might as well have been a poodle… And where’s the fun in that? “Some might call it a very great gift,” says Professor Chase in the pilot, but it’s one the series completely threw away…