“You may think this silly, but ever since I can remember I had this urge to be a knight. Not in armor or anything like that. Just in spirit. You know, to help the helpless. To find a wrong and right it. Then somewhere around 13 or 14 it sort of all became an urge to save beautiful damsels in distress. I just wish that somewhere in all of those books I read about knights and dragons they’d have warned me about damsels wearing little straw hats.”
Donald P. Bellisario has made quite a name for himself in television drama. Everyone knows about the huge hits like JAG, NCIS, Magnum, P.I., Quantum Leap, and the original Battlestar Galactica. But are you as familiar with his less than successful shows? Anyone remember First Monday? How about Tales Of The Gold Monkey?
Back in 1979, or so at least he claims, Bellisario was trying to shop his idea then called Tales Of The Bronze Monkey to the three networks. All of them took swift passes and left him with an idea that just wasn’t going to reach the land of television. But in 1981 something quite extraordinary happened. Harrison Ford traded his blaster and vest of Han Solo for the whip and fedora of Indiana Jones. Raiders Of The Lost Ark appeared to come from out of nowhere, and it took the world by storm. Suddenly a period piece about a 1930’s adventurer fighting Nazis and investigating ancient tombs and strange islands looked like a very good idea after all. ABC beat the rest to the gate and talked Bellisario into bringing his dusty pilot script to their network. Unfortunately, the two would never really get along. In a year’s time, the show was gone. What happened? Well… that depends upon who you ask. ABC claims the show was cancelled, but Bellisario has been heard to say that he pulled the show away from the network. Whatever the truth, the two sides obviously did not want to work with each other, and Tales Of The Gold Monkey would end up falling remarkably short of 1001 Tales.
Jake Cutter (Collins) was once a member of the Flying Tigers. These American volunteers flew over China fighting the Japanese in the years leading up to America’s official involvement in World War II. When he was injured, he could no longer fly fighter planes. He bought a scrap Goose, and he and his trusty mechanic and sidekick Corky (MacKay) fixed the seaplane up and settled in the island of Boragora in The French Mandate of the South Pacific. With him on the island was Sarah White (O’Heaney) who was an American spy that Jake had rescued once and now lived on the island as her base of operations. The local Monkey Bar and Hotel was owned by Louie (McDowall). He was also the official representative of the French Government and served as the island’s Magistrate of Justice. His past was a colorful one that included time spent at Devil’s Island and a bungled date with the guillotine. Jake’s most loyal companion was the one-eyed dog Jack. Jack used to have two eyes, well … one real eye and another made from opal and sapphire, but Jake gambled it away based on a misinterpretation of his communication signals with Jack. Now Jack wasn’t willing to forgive the fact that he spent most of the time wearing an eye patch. Also on the island was the Reverend Tenboom (Calvin) who was really a German spy. The team frequently encountered trouble from the neighboring island in the Japanese Mandate run by the not- very- Japanese-looking Princess Koji (DuBois) and her right-hand samurai Todo (Fujioka). Koji was attracted to Jake, and even though he was an enemy, often exhibited a soft spot for the pilot.
The series suffered from an identity crisis almost from the very first episode. Rod Moody originally played Louie, but was replaced after the pilot by Roddy McDowall, who was not very convincing as a Frenchman. I love McDowall, but this isn’t one of his finest portrayals. The show also started out by promising strange idols, spying, and action that it quickly stopped delivering. After just a couple of episodes, nothing was ever done with our German spy masquerading as a priest. The character remained, but he never ended up doing any real spying. There were few idols and almost no spying of any kind after the pilot. The network wanted an Indiana Jones television show, but that’s not the kind of thing Bellisario really wanted to do. This tug of war between network and producer took a huge toll on a cast that likely wasn’t really sure where they were going. The series also relied much too heavily on stock footage taken exclusively from the pilot. Almost all of the flying scenes were recycled. It became painfully obvious after very little time. Jake just missed hitting the same island on a shaky takeoff at least a half a dozen times.
You have to feel a little sorry for the actors in particular, who must have been caught square in the middle of this feud. They are all giving it their best. I really start to see why Stephen Collins was once considered a potential replacement for Captain Kirk on a planned Star Trek series. He has a lot of the same devil-may-care grins and mannerisms. His chemistry, particularly with Jeff MacKay, is marvelous; not so with Caitlin O’Heaney. It’s probably not really her fault, but she appears terribly awkward most of the time. I rather enjoyed more those episodes when she was rarely used. It’s no surprise that she’s had very little in the way of a career. Stephen Collins did get the biggest bonus out of the show. When Faye Grant guest starred as Louie’s daughter, he fell in love, and the two remain married to this day. Finally, it’s a shame I never did get to see more of Jeff MacKay. He was incredible in this show. Sadly, he passed away in 2008 of liver disease. Unfortunately, like his character Corky, MacKay struggled with the bottle.
Each episode is presented in its original full-frame broadcast format. Unfortunately, these transfers are not very good at all. There is so much video noise that I can’t separate the compression issues from the original print noise. The colors fade in and out as the shows move along. One minute the color and image might look pretty good, when suddenly it goes darker or gets drowned in a bright haze. There are mysterious lines on the screen from time to time. For an obscure series, I understand this is as good as it’s going to get, but it is unfortunate, nonetheless.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is as dull as the image. You can hear the dialog fine, but there is no atmosphere or ambient life to this presentation. The theme is distorted at times.
The Making Of Tales Of The Gold Monkey: (36:13) This is a very nice little interview section with Stephen Collins and Caitlin O’Heaney. They are not together, however. The two talk rather fondly of their fellow castmates who have passed away. They talk candidly about the show’s demise and are a little sensitive to the Indiana Jones comparisons. There are a few spots with former production personnel, which are not near as interesting.
Text based bios and production notes
The show had a lot going for it. It was somewhat more camp than I suspect was intended, but even the Indiana Jones films fell victim to that trap on more than one occasion. I don’t remember seeing the show at all during its run, but had heard a little about it over the years. Is it worth picking up? That’s a complicated question. The prints are very rough, and if that’s a problem for you, then you might want to sit this one out. However, there is some rather nice period serial-style drama here that you likely won’t see the likes of again anytime soon. I’d have to say Woof Woof. “Two barks mean yes. One bark means no. Everyone knows that.”