Everything old is new again: TV adaptations on the Big Screen


The new remake of The A-Team will put a modern spin on a popular television series of the eighties, bringing nostalgic feelings to old fans of the show while introducing a new generation to one of their fathers' favorites. The A-Team is just the latest in a very long line of classic TV shows that have received a big screen makeover.

The appeal of these small-screen-to-big-screen revamps is twofold. One purpose is to recapture older audiences who grew up on classic TV and who may not go to the movies very often anymore, but the lure of seeing one of the shows they grew up with on a the silver screen might entice them to visit their local theater. The second advantage is that Hollywood executives always feel safer using proven ideas rather than gambling on new ones, hence the reason so many sequels are made.

For the sake of brevity, this article won’t touch upon films which are continuations of TV series using the same cast. Therefore, The X-Files, Firefly, Twin Peaks, Sex and the City, and the Star Trek franchise aren’t covered here. This is all about remakes.

drwhodaleksposterThe first TV to film adaptation came from Great Britain in the form of Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965), based on the long running BBC TV series Dr. Who (1963-1989). This is a unique screen treatment of a television program because the original series was still on the air at the time, and yet all the roles were recast for the movie. Horror film legend Peter Cushing took on the title role of the time traveling hero. The film did well enough that a sequel, The Dalek Invasion of Earth 2150 AD (1966) was made.

The American film industry joined the TV adaptation game with The Twilight Zone (1983), a cinematic version of Rod Serling’s iconic sci-fi series of the same name, which ran from 1959-65. The film adapted three stories from the original show, along with one brand new tale, each of which was helmed by a noted film director. Steven Spielberg, John Landis, George Miller and Joe Dante all contributed a segment to the project. Most fans of the show would agree that the movie’s spin on the stories was not as good as the Rod Serling versions.

The TV remake trend really began to role in 1987 when the film version of The Untouchables came out. The original Untouchables program ran from 1959-63, untouchablesposterand starred Robert Stack as Elliot Ness. Kevin Costner played Ness in the movie version, but was overshadowed by two major league co-stars. Robert De Niro played notorious gangster Al Capone and Sean Connery won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Ness’ partner-in-crime-fighting. The film was very successful and really kick-started the TV-to-film craze.

Right on the heels of that film, another old TV show was brought to the screen. Dragnet (1987) took a different track than the Untouchables by parodying the original series. Jack Webb’s original show (1952-59) was a groundbreaking bit of TV, offering the first realistic look at police work. In the film, Dan Aykroyd parodied Webb’s stoic demeanor and monotone voice in a delightfully comic performance as Joe Friday. Tom Hanks played Friday’s happy-go-lucky partner.

The Addams Family (1991) was a decent remake of the short lived but much loved series (1964-66). The movie starred Raul Julia, who replaced John Astin as wacky family patriarch Gomez, and Anjelica Huston who inherited the part of addamsfamilyposterGomez’s wife Morticia from Carolyn Jones. Christopher Lloyd played the part of bizarre Uncle Fester in the film but it was young Christina Ricci who stole the show as grim-faced daughter Wednesday Addams. A sequel, Addams Family Values (1993) was better than the original. Both films were directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.

The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), starring Jim Varney, was an unsuccessful attempt to recreate the delightfully silly humor of the beloved, long-running Beverly Hillbillies TV series (1962-71), which starred Buddy Ebsen as Jed and Max Bear as the wacky Jethro. The film did no justice to the classic show.

One of the best ever adaptations of a TV show was the Fugitive (1993), a suspenseful chase film with Harrison Ford taking on the role of Doctor-on-the-run Richard Kimble. But the real star of the film was Tommy Lee Jones as the sarcastic, acerbic US Marshal Inspector Sam Gerard. Jones was launched into the Hollywood A-list when he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in the film. In the series (1963-67) David Janssen played Kimble and Barry Morse was Gerard. The classic show had the distinction of being the first time a TV program ever wrote a series final to wrap up its run.

Another excellent adaptation followed soon after with Maverick (1994), starring Mel Gibson as the amiable but not-so-brave gambler of the old west. James maverickposterGarner, who became a star playing the title role in the classic series (1957-62), appears in a supporting role as Maverick’s father. Garner’s charm, which made the original so successful, shines through here, and he steals several scenes from star Gibson and leading lady Jodie Foster.

Car 54, Where are you? (1994) was an unusual choice for a film adaptation because the original show (1961-63) is not too well remembered today. It’s notable as the first pairing of Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis who went on to greater fame in The Munsters. (If you polled fans, I think most people would rather have seen a film version of The Munsters, rather than Car 54.) The film, which performed very poorly at the box office, starred David Johansen, John C. McGinley and Fran Drescher.

Probably the funniest of all the screen adaptations was The Brady Bunch (1995) starring Gary Cole and Shelly Long as the goody-good parents originally played by Robert Reed and Florence Henderson from 1969-74. This good natured parody pokes gentle fun at the wholesome image of the characters from the classic show. A sequel, appropriately called A Very Brady Sequel (1996) was also very funny. Sadly, no further sequels were made.

Mission Impossible (1996) was a very successful film which had little or nothing to do with the original Mission Impossible TV series (1966-73). The show missimpossposterstarred Peter Graves as Phelps, the head of a covert espionage unit. The film was a generic action flick which infuriated long-time fans of the program by making the character of Phelps into a traitor. The success of the film was due to its outrageous stunts and the star power of leading man Tom Cruise, who was at the height of his popularity at the time. Two sequels, MI2 (1996) and MI 3 (2000) were made, both of the same quality and both successful.

Sgt. Bilko (1996) was an attempt to bring one of the first great TV comedies to a modern audience. The title of the classic program was The Phil Silvers Show (1955-59), starring—you guessed it—Phil Silvers as conniving staff sergeant Ernie Bilko. Steve Martin was a great choice to play the cinematic version of Bilko, but sadly the script let him down. The film was an unfunny mess and it wasted Martin’s talents.

One of the worst-ever film adaptations of a classic show was McHale’s Navy (1997) starring the much maligned Tom Arnold, along with Dean Stockwell and Tim Curry. The original sitcom starred Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine as the cunning PT boat commander McHale and a pre-Carol Burnett Show Tim thesaintposterConway as his dim witted sidekick Ensign Parker. The movie version was a bomb in every sense of the word.

The Saint (1997) was another failed attempt to recapture the magic of a classic program. Val Kilmer took up the role of enigmatic Simon Templar, originally played by a pre-James Bond Roger Moore. Kilmer couldn’t match the charm and humor Moore brought to the role during the show’s run in 1967-69, and the script of the film was a total washout.

A big-budget remake of a campy sci-fi favorite came to the screen next. Lost in Space (1998) was a somewhat more serious and adult version of producer Irwin Allen’s comical original (65-68). The TV series starred Guy Williams, who had previously achieved fame on TV in the Zorro, although in Lost in Space he ended up playing second fiddle to Jonathan Harris (as the deceitful and cowardly Doctor Smith), young Bill Mumy and a Robot. The film starred John Hurt, Gary Oldman (As Dr. Smith) and Heather Graham.

Another awful adaptation arrived in the lamentable form of The Avengers (1998). This poorly written bit of substandard trash was more of an insult than a homage to the long running British series which it was based on. The TV series (1961-69) starred Patrick Macnee as the most dapper of secret agents, John Steed. His suave charm and imperturbable cool made Steed the most watchable spy this side of Bond. But the show really kicked into high gear in season Four when Dina Rigg joined the cast as Steed’s sexy partner Emma Peel. Peel was a first for TV females. She was a martial arts expert who could hold her own theavengersumaposteragainst any man. And her tight cat-suits didn’t hurt her appeal any. Emma Peel was so popular that the show was soon picked up in America. Alas, Uma Thurman—who played Peel in the film--wasn’t able to duplicate the charisma and popularity of Rigg. Her chemistry with co-star Ralph Fiennes (who played Steed) was sorely lacking. Certainly, this pairing didn’t ignite sparks of sexual tension the way Macnee and Rigg did.

My favorite Martian (1999) was based on one of the sillier sitcoms of its day. The original show (1963-66) starred popular actor Ray Walston (Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) as the visitor from Mars known as Uncle Martin, and Bill Bixby as his perplexed human friend. The movie, which starred Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Daniels, was even more dumbed down than the classic series but less funny.

Following this came another contender for worst TV adaptation. The Wild, Wild West (1999) was a regrettably bad project. Despite the talents of red-hot superstar Will Smith, gorgeous Salma Hayek and Shakespearean thespian Kenneth Branagh, the movie was a disaster in substance, reviews and fan response. A terrible trifecta. This lamentable mess was based on the popular 1965-70 series, starring Robert Conrad.

The next adaptation was not much of an improvement. The Mod Squad (1999) was based on a time capsule show that couldn’t really survive the translation to modern film. The show, (1968-72) which starred Michael Cole, Peggy Lipton and Clarence Williams Jr., as a trio of young, attractive crime fighters, was the modsquadposternetwork’s attempt at co-opting the youth movement of the late 60s. The hippie heroes were designed to appeal to the flower child market. However, the film version had no “hook” and really no purpose for being made. Despite the acting talents of Clair Danes, Giovanni Ribisi and Omar Epps (Foreman of House MD), this was a bland and mediocre effort.

One of the most successful and popular films based on a TV series was the self-parodying Charlie’s Angels (2000) starring the comely threesome of Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz. More of a parody than an adaptation, this amusing bit of escapist entertainment mercilessly mocks its source material, and takes shots at popular film clichés in the process. It utilizes the jiggle-factor of the TV show and ups it to the nth degree. The trio of sexy stars appears to be having a great time acting goofy in this absurd satire. Bill Murray has a scene stealing role as the girl’s mission dispatcher Bosley. The original series (1976-81) starred a rotating group of pretty PIs. The show was rather silly, more interested in the girl’s wardrobe than in the crimes they were investigating. A less entertaining sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) followed the formula of the first film although the novelty was gone.

I Spy (2002) should have been a good film. It had everything it needed. A good premise about spies and a good cast. Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson seem like the kind of guys who can take this undercover spy concept and run with it. Sadly, ispyposterthis is not so. They pale in comparison to the original twosome of Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. Cosby won several Emmy awards for his work on the classic show (1965-68) and went on to become a huge star.

S.W.A.T. (2003) was a forgettable adaptation of a forgettable series. The original show (1975-6) was a short lived action series starring Steve Forest as the head of a Special Weapons and Tactical police unit. It was a mediocre show, all things considered. The film starred Colin Farrell and Samuel Jackson and had little in common with the series except for being equally tepid.

Next came Starsky and Hutch (2004) which tried to put a humorous spin on the original show. The TV Starsky and Hutch (1975-79) was one of several light-weight cop shows that cluttered the tube in the 70s. Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul were the original title duo, who alternated between being hip bachelors and cool cops. The film stars Bill Stiller and Owen Wilson, who basically go through the motions but get few laughs.

Bewitched (2005) was an odd remake. The film was about the making of a cinematic adaptation of the classic series (1964-67) which starred the lovely Elisabeth Montgomery as that twitchy witch Samantha. Nicole Kidman plays the bewitchedposteractress cast as the new Samantha but she turns out to be a genuine Witch. Will Ferell portrays the actor cast as Samantha’s husband Darrin. (Played by two different actors in the original.) This new twist on an old idea didn’t necessarily make it funny.

The big selling point of the cinematic update of The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) was Jessica Simpson taking on the vampy role of Daisy Duke, first created by Catherine Bach, who became a sex symbol of the eighties due to her short-shorts. The term “Daisy Dukes” came from Bach and her tiny, tight shorts. Although Bach became the main attraction, the official stars of the show (79-85) were Tom Wopat and John Schneider (Jonathan Kent from Smallville) as those back-woods Robin Hoods Beau and Luke Duke. The other star was their racecar, “the General Lee”. The film version starred Johnny Knoxville and Sean William Scott as the Duke boys. This movie proved that just because a bad idea succeeds on television, doesn’t mean it will succeed on the big screen.

A doomed-upon-conception remake was The Honeymooners (2005).  The original Honeymooners was one of the most iconic and seminal pieces of situation comedy in television history. The concept started out as a recurring sketch on The Jackie Gleason Show (1952-59) and graduated to a series in 1955. The force that made this series so loved and respected was the amazing on-screen chemistry between Gleason and Art Carney as loudmouth bus driver honeymoonersposterRalph Kramden and nutty sewer worker Ed Norton.The idea that anyone could recreate the magic those two made together was lunacy. Although Cedric the Entertainer (who played Ralph on screen) is a talented comedian he and co-star Mike Epps were fighting a losing battle.

Miami Vice (2006) was a revamp of one of the most popular cop shows of the eighties. The original show (1984-89) was a glitzy, stylish MTV influenced action show, which starred Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas as the Miami crime fighting team of Crockett and Tubbs. The film failed to recapture the pulse and glamour that made the series so successful. Colin Farrell and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx took on the roles of Crockett and Tubbs for the movie version but they weren’t able to overcome the memory of the original duo.

Get Smart (2008) was based on the very popular spy parody of the sixties. Made at the height of Bond-mania, the classic show (1965-70) was blessed with a comic tour-de-force performance by Don Adams, who was achingly hilarious as blundering spy Maxwell Smart. The film had its good points but no one can ever ateamposterplay Maxwell Smart with the same consistently zany excellence that Adams did, not even Steve Carell

And that brings us back to The A-Team (2010). The original show (1983-87) was a surprise hit. Despite repeating the same exact formula every week, the show succeeded because of its appealing stars. George Peppard. Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz were all excellent in their roles but it was really Mr. T, straight off his success in Rocky 3, who stole the show.  In the film version, Liam Neeson replaces George Peppard as Hannibal Smith, and former American Gladiator Quinton “Rampage” Jackson has the daunting task of filling in Mr. T’s oversized shoes as B. A. (“Bad Attitude”) Baracus.

Overall, the report card for film remakes of TV shows isn’t all that impressive, with a few exceptions. Let’s see if The A-Team can get it right.

Rob Young

Robert is obsessed with movies. He has a background in advertising and a long history of freelance writing but there's nothing he loves to write about more than movies. Let him dissect a film and he's a happy man. His favorite movie stars of all time are the Marx Brothers. He hates Cheech and Chong.


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