Saturday, 12 October 2013
Filmed by Four Star: An Overview of Four Star Productions
Although Four Star Productions would be an independent television production company owned by film stars, its roots actually went back to radio. In the late Forties talent agent and radio show packager Don Sharpe developed the idea of a radio anthology series that would feature four rotating stars. Four Star Playhouse debuted on NBC in the summer of 1949, with Robert Cummings, Rosalind Russell, Fred MacMurray, and Loretta Young rotating as its four stars. Unfortunately despite the show's novel concept and its big name stars, Four Star Playhouse did not last long on radio.
While Don Sharpe was able to interest Dick Powell in Four Star Playhouse, he had some trouble getting his other three stars. He tried convincing Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck to join the project, but neither of them were interested in doing a television series at the time. He had convinced Joel McCrea to join the project, but he soon backed out. Don Sharpe and Dick Powell finally convinced Mr. Sharpe's client Charles Boyer and Dick Powell's close friend David Niven to join Four Star Playhouse. With three out of its four stars in place for the new television show, Four Star Productions was formed in 1952, with each of the three stars owning stock. Don Sharpe was appointed its president and Dick Powell was its chief executive officer. To fill the role of the fourth star on Four Star Playhouse a solution was found in a rotating group of guest stars that included Ronald Colman, Joan Fontaine, Merle Oberon, and Teresa Wright.
Four Star Playhouse would not remain Four Star's only production for long. Not surprising given the early to mid-Fifties were dominated by the genre, their shows following Four Star Playhouse were also anthology shows. The first was the short lived Stage 7. Debuting on 30 January 1955, it only lasted for 25 episodes. Their next show would prove much more successful, as well as a sign of things to come for Four Star Productions. Zane Grey Theatre, also known as Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre, was hosted by Dick Powell, who also occasionally starred in its episodes. As the title suggests, it began with adaptations of Zane Grey's Western short stories and novels, although the show started using new material later in its run. Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre would prove historic for Four Stars Productions not only in being its first success following Four Star Playhouse, but also in the fact that it was the company's first Western series. As the Fifties progressed, Westerns would number among their most successful shows. Zane Grey Theatre ran for five years.
As the Fifties progressed anthology shows went into decline, so it was perhaps inevitable that the company would expand into episodic television. The first of these was the sitcom Hey, Jeannie!, starring Jeanne Carson as Scottish immigrant to the United States Jeannie MacLennan. Hey, Jeannie would not prove overly successful. It debuted on 8 September 1956 and ran for only one season, with six more episodes produced for syndication in 1958. Their next sitcom would prove only a little more successful. Mr. Adams and Eve starred Ida Lupino and real life husband Howard Duff as the title characters. While Miss Lupino would be nominated for the Emmy for Best Actress in a Continuing Role two years in a row for the show, Mr. Adams and Eve ultimately lasted only two seasons.
It was in 1959 that Four Star Productions became Four Star Television. On 12 January 1959 it went public on the American Stock Exchange. The year 1959 would also see Four Star at its peak, with no less than twelve television series on network prime time. Three of these series (The Rifleman, Zane Grey Theatre, and Wanted Dead or Alive) ranked in the top twenty highest rated shows for the 1959-1960 season. Four Star Television would remain one of the major television production companies into the early Sixties. As of 1962 only Revue (which was owned by MCA and would later become Universal Television) and Screen Gems (Columbia Pictures' television division) had more shows on the air than Four Star Television. Unfortunately, Four Star Television would see a decline in its fortunes as the Sixties progressed.
The most successful of their later anthology shows was The Dick Powell Show. The Dick Powell Show ran for three seasons and might well have run more if not for Mr. Powell's untimely death. The Dick Powell Show proved to be a springboard for one of Four Star's later hits: Burke's Law. Dick Powell played police detective Captain Amos Burke in the 1961 episode of The Dick Powell Show entitled "Who Killed Julie Greer?". It was on 20 September 1963 that Burke's Law debuted, starring Gene Barry in the title role.
With the Western and private eye cycles over Four Star Television did try some interesting formats for shows. The Lloyd Bridges Show could best be described as a semi-anthology. Lloyd Bridges played author Adam Shepherd, who each week would become one of the characters in his stories. The show changed formats at mid-season to become a straight anthology show. Unfortunately, it only lasted one season. Saints and Sinners was another show that originated from an episode of The Dick Powell Show. In a 1962 episode of The Dick Powell Show Nick Adams played reporter Nick Philips. For the series his name was changed to Nick Alexander, but the character was essentially the same. Unfortunately, Saints and Sinners would only last half a season.
By 1963 Four Star Television was already a shadow of what it once was. For the 1963-1964 season Burke's Law was its only show on the air. To make matters worse Dick Powell died on 2 January 1963 from lymphoma. Without the leadership of Dick Powell Four Star Television there seemed to be very little way the company could regain its position as an industry leader. In fact, in the coming years Four Star Television would have little in the way of hit shows. After Burke's Law changed formats from a detective series to a spy show (complete with a new title Amos Burke, Secret Agent), it lasted only half a season. Honey West, a spin off from Burke's Law, only lasted one season. The sitcom The Smothers Brothers Show had started strong in the ratings, but quickly plummeted to the point that it was cancelled at the end of the 1965-1966 season.
By 1967 The Big Valley was the only show Four Star Television had on the air. It was in 1967 that a group of investors led by David Charnay bought controlling interest in Four Star Television. David Charnay then became Four Star's President, Chief Executive and Chairman of the Board. He also renamed the company "Four Star International". Unfortunately, under Mr. Charnay, Four Star International would become primarily a syndicator of television programmes, relying on reruns of such shows as The Rifleman, The Big Valley, and so on for its profits. After the cancellation of The Big Valley in 1969 Four Star would never again produce another network show.
In 1986 Four Star International was sold to Compact Video, a company founded in the early Seventies. It had originally provided post-production services to various entertainment venue, but in the Eighties seemed determined to become a conglomerate. Unfortunately, Compact Video would find itself taken over by Ronald Perelman and his company, MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Inc. When Mr. Perelman acquired New World Entertainment in 1989, Four Star International became one of its divisions. Unfortunately, later in 1989 Four Star International ceased to exist entirely, as it was folded into New World Entertainment. As to New World Communications (as it was later known), in 1997 it was acquired by News Corporation. When News Corporation was divided into two companies earlier this year (News Corporation and 21st Century Fox), it was 21st Century Fox who retained ownership of 20th Century Fox, 20th Century Fox Television, the Fox Broadcasting Company, and anything else film or television related, including the old Four Star Television properties.
Regardless of whether Four Star Productions was the most successful independent television production company of all time, it certainly was one of the most successful. Indeed, Four Star Television has left a legacy that can still be felt to this day. Both The Rifleman and The Big Valley continue to be popular in syndication to this day, while many of their other shows are remembered as classics. Richard Diamond, Private Detective; Zane Grey Theatre; Wanted Dead or Alive; Burke's Law; and other shows produced by Four Star Productions are still highly regarded today.
If Four Star Productions proved pivotal in the careers of many actors, directors, and writers, it may well have been because the television company was among the most supportive of its creative talent in the industry. As an actor and later a director Dick Powell was perhaps more sympathetic to talent than many other studio heads were. Indeed, Mr. Powell was known to personally listen to ideas from writers. What is more, he would support scripts even if they disagreed with his own politics and was known to intervene on writers' behalves with the networks and sponsors. This naturally earned him the respect of the actors, writers, and directors at Four Star Productions. Indeed, Aaron Spelling left Four Star Productions in 1966 because, in his words, "Some idiot decided to wipe Dick Powell's name off the masthead."
In its nearly 15 years as a major, independent television production company, Four Star Productions produced a wide variety of television shows. The company continued to produce anthologies well after they had gone out of fashion, and also produced Westerns, detective shows, adventure shows, and sitcoms. Their output was diverse, a fact that perhaps gave Four Star over other television production companies at the time. While Four Star Productions faltered in the Sixties, it remains remembered for producing a large number of classic television shows, as well as being the only independent television company owned by bona fide movie stars.