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Old January 8th, 2004, 02:40 PM   #1
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Default 10 year old interview with Glen A. Larson

This interview originally appeared in Epi-log magazine, the interview was conducted by Doug Snauffer.

"God, it's amazing to me!" proclaims writer-producer Glen A. Larson, his voice ringing with a resonance of genuine awe and pride. "Absolutely amazing."

He's referring to the fact that his late '70s creation, Battlestar Galactica, is among the elite class of television series whose fans have remained active and loyal well beyond the show's initial network run. This past October, these same devotees paid further tribute to the series by gathering in Universal City for a fifteenth-anniversary convention.

Battlestar Galactica, with Larson at the helm, hit the airwaves on the evening of September 17,1978, with a special three-hour premiere telecast that arrived with a fanfare unheard of in the television industry to this day. A summer long publicity blitz which had put stars Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict on the covers of TV Guide, People, and Newsweek, paid off and the ratings were stellar.

Anyone even remotely involved with the show seemed to be on top of the world.

And yet somehow, this series, considered to be a monumental step in television production due to it's grand scale and state-of-the-art special effects, faded into history at the end of it's first season. ABC cited, over the long run, lower than expected ratings; Universal Studios complained of the show's astronomical budget; and the producers and actors chalked it all up to industry politics.

So what happened?

Early last August, Glen Larson sat down with Epi-log and discussed his long voyage aboard the Battlestar Galactica. Clearly, this man, a prolific, veteran writer and producer with over twenty prime-lime series to his credit, has a special attachment to Battlestar Galactica. He fought to gel it on the air and stuck with it through as many bad times as good.

"We realized early we were taking on a great deal. Science fiction had always been very difficult in television," he began. "There are television shows and there are television shows, and this one was of epic proportions."

Larson always had a basic interest in science fiction and actually began developing an idea in the genre in the mid-1970s.

When he first went to Universal Studios with the intention of doing a science-fiction series, he tried to sell them on a project called "Adam's Ark". He had been inspired by a Time Magazine cover in which the top people from our planet in a variety of fields - from science to medicine and so-forth - were assembled together for a group photo.

He explains, "I had this idea in which a group of such individuals could be gathered together in some sort of super auditorium in the middle of the desert under the aegis of Howard Hughes, one of the pioneers of aviation, only to learn that it was a space launch because computers had projected the end of the Earth. And you would end up with this ark travelling through space to find another place to start over."

That evolved in his mind to just the opposite, of starting somewhere out in space and coming back and trying to find Earth. It was a progressive idea he worked on for a number of years without any real luck with the networks. One network head, Fred Silverman, expressed the general opinion when he pointed out that Star Trek hadn't worked, so why risk big bucks on another science-fiction show.

Larson explains, "Star Trek had been taken off the air fairly early. It generated interest, but from a core group. And in those days, networks were only interested in real overwhelming numerical supremacy. They weren't interested in satisfying splinter groups."

The breakthrough came in 1977 when Star Wars hit theaters and became an enormous hit. Science fiction was big and everyone in Hollywood suddenly had similar projects popping up on boards all over town.

On the small screen, the scale and scope of science fiction had always been kept in check by limited budgets. But after Star Wars, Larson realized that fans wouldn't settle for the same old television treatment of the genre. "Industrial Light and Magic had pretty well set the standard with Star Wars. You couldn't just put a rock on a soundstage anymore and hope it would hold an audience," Larson said, adding that the stories and the characters are and always will be the most important factor.

Once the network OK'd production on the Battlestar Galactica pilot, Larson realized he had to work fast. "To embark on that kind of an adventure was very tricky. It took lots of effort, and time, and help. We moved very quickly to see if we could get the same kind of quality people on board so our project would be on a par with what the audience was expecting."

It happened that Twentieth-Century Fox was looking for a way to advertise Industrial Light and Magic at that time, and they must have felt that television could provide the mass viewing audience they hoped to impress with their rapidly advancing technology. And after all, it could have been years before another film such as Star Wars including its sequel, would be viewed by audiences. Because of this, John Dykstra and ILM came aboard Battlestar Galactica, becoming "a major piece of the puzzle".

Larson went on to explain that once a science fiction or fantasy show gets past the pre-production phase things get a little easier. He cites the initial research and development costs as a major hurdle in getting a series up and running. "Once you're past that stage, its not so expensive," he says.

"But getting them up and getting them to look good is a real job. We sort of had a reputation for having heel marks all the way to the lab because I wouldn't let go of the damn negative. I kept trying to make it better."

He believes that one bad special effects picture can ruin the entire project. "If it didn't work, you've got to pull it out or redo it or do something unless you just don't give a dam. And unfortunately when you're competing with George Lucas, who you know really had a chance to do it right, you just can't show up second best."

During filming of the Battlestar Galactica pilot, however, Dykstra and George Lucas had a parting of the ways. Fox originally controlled ILM, and then the organization changed hands and Dykstra's group splintered off and became Apogee. Larson got Dykstra, his crew, and Richard Edlund, while Lucas re-established ILM and went to work on The Empire Strikes Back.

The separation of Dykstra and Lucas may have been what lead to an eventual lawsuit filed by the Star Wars producers against Universal and Battlestar Galactica.

Larson admits being a bit stunned by the legal situation. "I always considered it very unfair because we had met with people from their show and agreed not to do certain things and they were in agreement not to take any action. After all Fox had leased us their facilities and we even did our scoring on their stages.

"We thought that we were behaving according to certain parameters that were laid down and agreed to," continued Larson, who had met with Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz. "I agreed not to use certain effects including laser streaks from our guns." Instead, Colonial pistols emitted an actual flash from their muzzles that was in sync with the camera lens, to insure the shutter would be open at the right second and the effect would not be missed.

The two camps eventually ended up in litigation and Larson remembers it as a very distracting element, tying up the time of Dykstra and members of his team. In any case, he concludes, "It was a major distraction and a disappointment because I thought we had an agreement that that wouldn't happen. I don't know what it absolutely did to the outcome of our show."

Larson remembers the casting process for Battlestar Galactica as "a long, harrowing experience. There was a lot of fighting back and forth. We had one guy fly in from New York and get into costume, only to replace him the night before shooting began. It was up and down and back and forth, but I think we wound up with a pretty good group of people."

Once production got underway on the series, the shooting schedule proved to be a logistical nightmare in itself. Larson remembers one instance when the pressure may have gotten to him and he got a little crazy.

One Sunday afternoon, he caught a glimpse of several people walking around the Universal lot in Colonial uniforms and Cylon armor. At the time Universal had been plugging Galactica heavily on its public tours. He immediately ran in and began lodging a major protest with the studio: "I told them 'I really resent this because it's hard for me to mount the thing with you guys borrowing all of our stuff."

"When I finished, they looked at me, and said, 'We're not borrowing them, you're shooting down on stage 12'." Larson laughs, "I didn't realize that we were so far behind schedule that we had to shoot on a Sunday in order to make an airdate."

After the huge Nielsen numbers drawn by the pilot, Battlestar Galactica continued to rake in impressive ratings in its Sunday Night time slot. Even so, after one season, ABC cancelled the series, sighting ratings and budgetary problems.
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Old January 8th, 2004, 02:41 PM   #2
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Explains Larson: "ABC at that point had gotten very spoiled by fifty shares and all of their Garry Marshall comedies. They were on a roll...everything they had on the air was top ten. So if you were rated in the twenties with a high license fee, they considered you a disappointment."

At about the same time that ABC cancelled Battlestar Galactica, they also cancelled The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, another show Larson was responsible for, and which preceded Galactica at 7 p.m., the network's family hour on Sunday evenings.

Continued Larson: "But in retrospect, our numbers were quite respectable, and to this day, ABC has never come close to the numbers we were getting then (in those time slots)."

At the time, Larson felt that Battlestar Galactica was just reaching a creative peak. Just before the cancellation, he had a long meeting with Isaac Asimov, who was going to step in and be an advisor. Entire projections had been drawn up as to where the show would go in its second season. But then everything came crashing down.

The following September, ABC moved Mork and Mindy, which had shot to the top of the ratings in it's rookie year, from Tuesday nights into Battlestar Galactica's Sunday time slot. "They figured Mork and Mindy would just come in and dazzle everyone," said Larson. "But in fact it did not do as well as we had there. The network then conceded to us that they had made a tremendous mistake in not sticking with us longer."

In an attempt to rectify the situation, ABC offered Larson another shot at the concept. Larson wrote a three hour script titled Galactica Discovers Earth, which then spun into the abortive Galactica: 1980 series that spring. "But by that time, we weren't really geared to deliver as well as we had in the past," said Larson. "They stuck us with restrictions that were just ridiculous and justified it by rolling us into the 7 o'clock time slot."

"Reality doesn't prevail in those things. The same lady who was in charge of defanging Bugs Bunny was also in charge of our dynamics. It was similar to the violence witch hunt that we're going through at the moment. We just weren't allowed to use the same adult appeal." It could have been that ABC gave up on trying to pull the adult audiences away from CBS' 60 Minutes and All in the Family, intending instead just to go after the young adult and children's market.

When he first began putting the revival series together, Larson found the original cast would not all be available. When it looked like it would be difficult to get everyone back, the decision was made to go in a whole different direction.

Soon afterward, Larson found himself making a choice from the heart. "Lorne Greene called me and was so emotional about the show coming back without him that I really found myself in a position of feeling, 'God, I can't do this to him.' So we elected to go ahead and put him back on the bridge. And it was probably better, because it gave us at least that little bit of continuity."

Overall, he was disappointed in Galactica: J980. As with the original program, consideration had been given to the idea of doing a series of movies rather than a weekly show. "That would have been great," Larson says, "to have had a couple of months between them. But we were thrown into an all or nothing situation."

Actually, the show didn't go off for lack of support from the network. Once again, it was politics that doomed Larson's brainchild.

The show did get off to a great start. The Galactica Discovers Earth three-part special (which aired in January 1980) did exceptionally well. "The numbers were enormous, it was just like the original premiere," Larson says. ABC then went to Larson with a series proposal, but wanted to be on the air within four weeks.

Hence, the beginning and eventual demise of Galactica 1980.

"I never should have accepted that order," confesses Larson. "It just didn't give us enough time." Because the series was rushed into production so quickly, they once again ran into Sunday shoots, meaning triple overtime. The budget needed to get the show done on time went through the roof.

Larson feels that if he had turned ABC down at that time and waited, the network would have offered them a spot on the fall schedule instead. "That would have given us the time we needed to keep our costs in check," says Larson.

As it happened, almost as soon as the series debuted on March 16th, Universal realized it just couldn't make enough money off the series based on it's current budget, and challenged ABC to come up with more money. The network refused, and after a lot of arguing back and forth with the studio, decided to drop the show from its schedule. Based strictly on the ratings that Galactica 1980 had been pulling in and the fact that it was hitting its target audience, it more than likely would have been renewed for that fall.

The show did, however, provide Larson with one of his most memorable episodes from the entire Galactica experience. "When it got down to the end when things seemed pretty dark, I got an opportunity to just do what I wanted to do. So I forgot about the time period and wrote The Return of Starbuck. "

The episode took a look back in time to Starbuck's last voyage. After a space battle, Starbuck is left marooned on a barren planet along with a group of crashed Cylons. Isolated and lonely, the warrior decides to rebuild one of the automatons for himself as a friend.

"It gave me the chance to bring back Dirk and to really show what we could have done," states Larson. "I thought it was just a terrific episode, and it was much more akin to what we were doing best on the original series and what they did best on Star Trek, a nice little morality play."

Larson said he wouldn't be surprised to see Battlestar Galactica return at some point. "The show has a certain life of it's own. Since it's back on the air on cable, I've started to get mail from fans. There are people who have a passion about it, and it gets rekindled."

But what form it would return in remains to be seen. Comments Larson, "Certainly the costs would still be a problem. I don't know to what extent that would be an issue."

Creatively, however, Larson has a strong course of action in mind. "If I have my way," he said, "Galactica 1980 would certainly be Starbuck's nightmare, and we'd go back to the original concept. I guess if Dallas could turn a whole season into a dream we could make Starbuck wake up in the middle of the night after having had a nightmare about discovering Earth," he joked.

More likely, he says seriously, it could be explained as simply having been a computer projection of what the discovery of Earth could be like if they're not careful. A similar technique was utilized in an early segment of Galactica Discovers Earth.

"In our talks with Asimov, we discussed a lot of ideas, and none of them had anything to do with discovering Earth. That was just sort of a hype that made it possible for us to get in business with ABC again. It was all to attract that young seven o'clock audience."
"Battlestar Galactica will never happen again the way that it was." – Laurette Spang
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Old January 8th, 2004, 04:55 PM   #3
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Thanks for posting this interview. It was a great one.
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