When NBC Turned Buck Rogers Into ‘Burt Reynolds in Outer Space’
Following the success of Star Wars in 1977, production studios saw science-fiction as a potential goldmine. So it was inevitable that NBC brought Buck Rogers in the 25th Century to TV screens in the fall of 1979.
The network's hotshot executive at the time was Fred Silverman, referred to by Time as "the man with the golden gut" because of his visionary work. During his career, Silverman was responsible for bringing some of the most groundbreaking and renowned programming not only to NBC (Diff'rent Strokes, The Facts of Life, Gimme a Break!), but also to ABC (Charlie's Angels, Three's Company, The Love Boat, Soap, Fantasy Island) and CBS (All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Rhoda).
Silverman and his trusty gut arrived at NBC in 1978 as the network's new president and CEO. As 1979's fall season drew near, the TV vet made it clear the network was going to make some drastic changes to its programming.
After receiving a number of complaints from viewers and advertisers about the network's adult-focused programming, Silverman felt it was “very obvious" that the network needed to tone down its content. The executive worked quickly to modify the network’s schedule to ensure any shows in the lineup or in development didn't focus on sex. Ultimately, Silverman believed a shift toward programs "of value" would benefit the network, so storylines deemed "too adult" had to be cut.
Another one of NBC's goals in the late '70s was to bring big-budget sci-fi to TV. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the latest project from television writing giant Glen A. Larsen, was a part of that vision. The production was not without risk, considering ABC had canceled another Larsen sci-fi show, Battlestar Galactica, a year earlier.
NBC granted Larsen an opportunity to craft another expensive show. The writer was familiar with Buck Rogers from that character's days in a comic strip and envisioned the hero as an adventurer with a sly sense of humor. "I saw Buck as Burt Reynolds in outer space," Larsen explained to Epic Illustrated in 1980. Bruce Lansbury, whose TV credits included Mission: Impossible and Wonder Woman, later signed on as Buck Roger's producer.
To attract a female demographic, Lansbury cast a male lead who could draw women to the show. "He's going to be a major star," Lansbury said about 36-year-old Gil Gerard, who landed the role. "He just hasn't had the right vehicle so far, and Buck Rogers fits him like a glove. He's James Garner, Burt Reynolds, all those people -- given the chance."
Gerard previously made his living as an industrial chemist in Arkansas. He found the work dull, so dreams of an acting career took him to New York. But success didn't come quickly. Gerard took acting classes during the day and worked a 12-hour shift as a cab driver at night during his early days in New York City. Then, very much in fairy-tale fashion, one of Gerard's passengers turned out to have connections in the entertainment world.
This led to Gerard's first paid acting job, as an extra on the set of the film Love Story, though his scene was cut out of the movie. Hundreds of appearances in commercials and a soap opera later, the actor scored the lead role in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He reportedly turned the part down three times because he didn't want to portray Buck Rogers as a "cartoon character." But after reading the script, Gerard saw the character had a strong sense of humanity, as well as a good sense of humor.
Actress Erin Gray, who had appeared in Evening at Byzantium, a miniseries produced by Larsen, was cast to co-star as Col. Wilma Deering. Gray spent 12 hours on the set during her last day of filming Evening at Byzantium right before she headed out to an audition for Buck Rogers, and recalled she was in a "sullen mood" before the tryout. She had no idea what the show was about or any insight into her character. Gray later credited her mood for helping to create a distinctive dynamic between herself and Gerard -- precisely the kind of chemistry Lansbury was looking for.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was originally conceptualized as a TV movie, but Universal Studios opted to release the feature-length pilot in theaters in March 1979. The strategy worked: The film was not only a box-office success, it also helped build anticipation for the series' release six months later. The first TV episode was presented as a two-part cliffhanger, even though it was really just an edited cut of the movie.
Watch a 'Buck Rogers' TV Spot From 1979
The show's popularity exploded, and the demand for the cast's presence at sci-fi conventions kept them busy signing thousands of autographs a day for the ever-growing fan base.
Despite Silverman's concerns regarding sexuality, Buck Rogers provided plenty of onscreen eye candy. The opening title credits for the movie were done in the style of legendary title designer Maurice Binder, best known for his work on more than a dozen James Bond films. And much like the 007 flicks, Buck Rogers' title sequence was very sexy -- and something NBC executive had hoped to avoid. A generic version of the title sequence, toning down the suggestiveness of the original opening, was later adopted.
Elsewhere, actress Pamela Hensley (who played the evil Princess Ardala) appeared seemingly nude while in a steaming bathtub or in various eye-popping ensembles. Gerard and Gray's uniforms were also notably skintight. The daring and formfitting outfits were designed by Jean-Pierre Dorleac, whose work on Larsen's previous sci-fi show, Battlestar Galactica, won him an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Series.
Still, there was more to the show than sex appeal. Gray's portrayal of the tough Col. Deering inspired women, which the actress was reportedly proud of, even though she admittedly hadn't planned it that way. "I don’t feel responsible in one way, because I didn’t go out there and lead the way or something — it just happened," she said. "But I’m very grateful for it. It’s a certain legacy that I have that I’m honored to have been part of.”
Ratings for Buck Rogers were high, but internally there was a fair amount of strife on-set because of constant episode rewrites requested by both NBC and Larson. Gerard had developed a poor impression of the program based on the scripts he read before the start of season one. The actor felt the show was trying to be a buddy-cop action series like Starsky and Hutch, but set in outer space, or even an intergalactic riff on Charlies Angels. The cast also felt the rewrites were pushing the show in a more comedic direction, while they kept hoping for a more serious science-fiction storyline. Gerard was especially put off by how his character was perceived; according to him, all Buck did "was go out and raise hell with some pretty girl."
The series' star was also miffed at the way NBC handled the show's scheduling. “We were tied with Laverne & Shirley and Benson,” Gerard recalled of Buck Roger's strong early ratings. “Laverne & Shirley was the overall No. 1 show for the entire season the year before. Benson was the hot new comedy. Well, we were tied with them after four weeks on the air. And then they took us off the air to build up the special effects and stuff.”
It's a decision the actor believes stunted the show's audience. "At the same time some of the other networks were canceling shows," he said. "So a lot of people who were watching thought, of course, it’s gone, so it must be cancelled. ... It never really recovered from that.”
By the time Buck Rogers' second season aired, both fans and the cast were irked by the show's shift to be more in line with Star Trek. Gerard's complaints and script rewrites prompted the network to threaten legal action.
"I hated that season," Gerard said, summing up his feelings about the second season. "It was such a ripoff of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. I was thinking, 'Why are we doing this?' I always wanted Buck to stay on Earth, but we got a new executive producer who had no respect for the audience and the show."
Among the behind-the-scenes discourse, mounting tension and disagreements on creative direction, it became clear the series' days were numbered. After two seasons and 37 episodes, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century received a pink slip from NBC. Its last episode aired on April 16, 1981.