Saturday, 12 October 2013

Filmed by Four Star: An Overview of Four Star Productions

Chances are that if you have watched very many old, American television shows then you have heard of Four Star Productions (also known as Four Star Television and Four Star International). Over the years Four Star Productions produced such classic shows as Richard Diamond, Private Detective; Goodyear Theatre; The Rifleman; The Detectives; Dick Powell Theatre; Burke's Law; and The Big Valley. What set Four Star Productions apart from other television production companies was not its record of success, however, but the fact that hit had been founded by four bona fide movie stars.

 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.

It was in 1951 that Don Sharpe moved into television packaging and decided to create a television version of Four Star Playhouse. Among the actors he convinced to join the project was Dick Powell.  Mr. Powell had been the star of many Warner Brothers musicals in the Thirties. In fact, for two years in a row (1935 and 1936) he ranked in the annual Quigley poll of the top ten highest grossing box office stars. As his career progressed Dick Powell longed to expand beyond the role of young, romantic, musical star, although he found this ambition squashed by studio head Jack Warner. His choice of roles did not improve when he signed with Paramount in 1940. Fortunately, after signing with RKO in 1944 Mr. Powell found himself played a larger variety of roles. Indeed, he played hard boiled characters in a number of films noir made in the mid to late Forties (most notably playing  Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet). By the late Forties Mr. Powell's ambitions had expanded beyond acting. He wanted to direct as well. Unfortunately, he once more found resistance from a studio, in this case RKO. It seems quite likely that in Four Star Playhouse Dick Powell saw his chance to break into directing and production.

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.

Starting with the second season of Four Star Playhouse Ida Lupino was brought in as the show's fourth star. While she did not own stock in Four Star Productions, she continued to appear regularly on the show throughout its run. She also starred in Four Star's sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve and guest starred on such shows they produced as Zane Grey Theatre, Burke's Law, and The Rogues. She also directed episodes of their shows Dante, The Rifleman, The Rogues, and Honey West.

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.

Clearly sitcoms were not (and never would be) Four Star Productions' forte. While they did not see success with either Hey, Jeannie! or Mr. Adams and Eve, a private eye show would be. Richard Diamond, Private Eye had been a radio show starring Dick Powell that had debuted on NBC in radio in 1949 and later had runs on ABC (in 1951) and CBS (in 1953). The television version debuted as a summer replacement show on CBS in 1957 and returned to that network's line up in January 1958. The show was one of a number of private eye shows that aired in the late Fifties, and it also proved somewhat successful. Richard Diamond, Private Detective ran for four seasons.  Four Star Productions would prove to have some luck with detective shows. The Detectives ran for three seasons, while Burke's Law ran for two seasons before switching formats to become Amos Burke, Secret Agent. Although it ran only for one season, Honey West remains well remembered to this day. One of Four Star's detective shows, Michael Shayne, would be notable as possibly the first American television show cancelled due to its violent content. Other Four Star detective shows included Dante (the role of William Dante had been previously played by Dick Powell in eight episodes of Four Star Theatre) and Target: The Corruptors.

Of course, it would be Westerns with which Four Star Productions would see the most success. Many of Four Star's Westerns originated as backdoor pilots on Zane Grey Theatre, among them Trackdown (starring Robert Culp as a Texas Ranger), The Westerner (with Brian Keith as a drifter in the Old West), Black Saddle (starring Peter Breck as a lawyer), and The Rifleman. The Rifleman proved to be Four Star's most successful Western, if not their most successful show. It ran for five years, ranking in the top twenty for three of those years. It would go onto a highly successful syndicated run. Another hit Western from Four Star, Wanted: Dead or Alive (itself a spin off from Trackdown), would be responsible for propelling Steve McQueen to stardom. Among the other Westerns produced by Four Star were Law of the Plainsman, Johnny Ringo, and Stagecoach West. In fact, what may have been Four Star's last successful show would be a Western, The Big Valley. It ran for four seasons before going onto a highly successful syndication run.

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.

With the cycles towards Westerns and private eye shows ending around 1960, Four Star Television once more turned to situation comedies. Unfortunately, none of the situation comedies produced by Four Star proved to be hits. The Tom Ewell Show, Peter Loves Mary, Mrs. G. Goes to College (also known as The Gertrude Berg Show), McKeever and the Colonel, and Ensign O'Toole only lasted one season each. Four Star Television would have only a little more luck with other genres. The company remained committed to anthology series even though they had gone out of fashion by the late Fifties. Four Star produced The DuPont Show with June Allyson (which ran for two seasons--it was also known as The June Allyson Show) and The David Niven Show (which ran for half a season).

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.

Perhaps the most interesting of Four Star Television's later shows was The Rouges. The Rouges centred on a group of cousins (the St. Clairs and the Flemings) who operated as con men who, for the right price and just cause, would swindle unscrupulous people truly deserving to be conned (I suppose it could be described as a Sixties version of Leverage).  Outside of Four Star Playhouse, The Rouges featured more of the Four Stars in its regular cast than any show the company had produced, with David Niven as Alexander "Alec" Fleming and Charles Boyer as Marcel St. Clair. The cast was rounded out by Gig Young as Tony Fleming. Like Four Star Playhouse before it, The Rogues rotated leads, with David Niven starring one week, Charles Boyer the next, and so on. Unfortunately, as Gig Young had fewer demands on his time than Messrs. Niven and Boyer, he starred in more episodes than they did. Later in the show's run a young actor named Larry Hagman, who played Mark Fleming, joined the cast so as to give Gig Young more free time. The Rogues debuted on 13 September 1964 to generally good reviews. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Television Show and was nominated for Emmys for Robert Cote (who played Timmy St. Clair) and Gladys Cooper (who played matriarch Auntie Margaret St. Clair). Despite its acclaim The Rogues did not prove to be a success. It only lasted one 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.

Of Four Star Television's shows after 1963, only The Big Valley could be described as a hit. In many respects it was a throwback to the earlier sorts of shows Four Star had produced. The Big Valley was a Western centred on a family of ranchers, the Barkleys, with Barbara Stanwyck playing the matriarch, Victoria Barkley. While The Big Valley never ranked in the top thirty shows for the year, it was reasonably popular, enough that it lasted four seasons. What it is more, its reruns would prove enormously popular in syndication, perhaps only matched by one other Four Star show, The Rifleman. Unfortunately, The Big Valley would not be enough to save Four Star Television.

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 fact, after the cancellation of The Big Valley, Four Star would produce only a very few television shows. In 1970 the company produced a short lived version of the old radio panel show Can You Top This. Aired in syndication, the show featured  Wink Martindale as its host. It only lasted eight months. In 1971 Four Star International produced Monty Nash, a syndicated drama starring Harry Guardino as the federal investigator of the title. It only lasted for 14 episodes. In 1973 and 1974 Four Star produced its last show, Thrill Seekers. Hosted by Chuck Connors, it was a syndicated reality show on which each week people would attempt dangerous stunts. It was a long way from Four Star Playhouse. Four Star International also produced two feature films: the exploitation film  The Hard Road (1970) and the low budget film Okay Bill (1971).

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.

Arguably Four Star Productions may have been the most successful American independent television company of its time, if not of all time. While Desilu Productions may be better and may have had bigger successes with individual shows (let's face it, not many shows are as big as I Love Lucy), Four Star Productions had several hit shows and at one point had more shows on the air than any other productions companies besides Revue and Screen Gems (neither of which were independents). It is quite possible that Four Star Productions was the most successful independent television production company of its time, perhaps of all time.

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.

Four Star Productions would also prove instrumental in the careers of several directors, writers, and actors. Sam Peckinpah did considerable work for Four Star early in his career, writing episodes of Zane Grey Theatre, Trackdown, and The Dick Powell Show, as well as directing episodes of Zane Grey Theatre, The Rifleman, and The Westerner. Indeed, he created both The Rifleman and The Westerner for the company. Prolific television producer Aaron Spelling also spent much of his early career as a producer and writer at Four Star. He produced Four Star's shows Johnny Ringo, The Dick Powell Show, The Lloyd Bridges Show, Burke's Law, Honey West, and The Smothers Brothers Show. He wrote episodes of Johnny Ringo, Zane Grey Theatre, and  The Dick Powell Show. While at Four Star he created Johnny Ringo and The Smothers Brothers Show. Perhaps the most famous person whose career was boosted by Four Star Productions was Steve McQueen. The series Wanted Dead or Alive propelled him to stardom. He went directly from that show to his career in film. Other writers and actors whose career were helped by Four Star Productions were Robert Culp, Blake Edwards, Bruce Geller, David Janssen, the writing team of William Link and Richard Levinson (who would go onto create Columbo), Mary Tyler Moore, and many others.

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.

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