Sunday, July 3, 2016

Steel Collar Man and Me

We like tickets at a discount!
I made my first trip to New York City in May 1984. My wife, my friend Herb, and I had originally intended to vacation in Great Britain. Alas, that fell through (we had cheap stand-by tickets and the flight was full). Our backup plan was an East Coast jaunt, starting in Philadelphia and including three days in the Big Apple at the Milford Plaza (no luxury suites for us, though!). 

On our first afternoon, Herb and I walked to the TKTS booth at Times Square to get half-price tickets to a Broadway show that night. As we were waiting in line—trying to decide on which play—we saw a young woman handing out tickets for free. She approached us and asked if we wanted to be part of television focus group for CBS. We would be shown a pilot for a new prospective TV series and then given the opportunity to provide feedback. Plus, everyone who participated would receive a free gift! It sounded like fun—plus I always like to get free presents—so we took three tickets (the third one for my wife).

The NYC headquarters of "The Eye."
Late that afternoon, the three of us showed up at CBS’s New York headquarters. Along with perhaps 17 other people, we were ushered into a small room with a TV and chairs with what looked like remote controls on both arms. We learned that we’d be watching the pilot episode of a science fiction adventure called The Steel Collar Man.

First, we were asked some general questions about our television viewing habits. Then, someone explained how the “remotes” were used to gauge audience reaction during the viewing. If you saw something you liked, you pressed a green button with one hand. If you saw something you didn’t like, you pressed the red button with the other hand. Finally, the lights dimmed and the opening scene of The Steel Collar Man was underway.

The credits were even hard to read.
Fifty-two minutes later, my “red button” finger was sore from exertion. The Steel Collar Man was one of the worst TV pilots I have ever seen—it was a testament to ineptitude. 

For the record, Saturday Night Live alum Charles Rocket played D5B, an android created for warfare, but on the run from government baddies (led by Chuck Connors). D5B wants to go to the White House to make a plea for his right to exist. Hoyt Axton co-starred as a trucker that helps him along the way. I surmised that the android and the trucker would help out nice folks each week as they trekked across America—narrowly avoiding capture by mean Chuck.

Charles Rocket as D5B.
Given the earlier successes of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Fugitive, it’s easy to see why a pilot was commissioned that combined the premises of those hit shows. Indeed, the concept wasn’t the problem; it was all in the execution. Rocket, speaking in a deliberate monotone, was ridiculous as the protagonist. Even worse, the show’s attempts at occasional humor failed miserably. The latter is especially surprising considering that Dave Thomas created The Steel Collar Man and penned the pilot. Four years earlier, Thomas was hailed for his funny skits as one half of the McKenzie Brothers (with Rick Moranis) on SCTV.

I wasn’t alone in my assessment of The Steel Collar Man. My wife and my pal Herb has experienced similar finger pain. We still laugh about the experience today. I’m also glad to report that CBS didn’t pick up the pilot for a TV series. However, a year later the pilot episode of The Steel Collar Man showed up on CBS in the summer of 1985 as a “special.” In TV lingo, that’s called “burning off" a busted TV pilot.

By the way, a good thing came out of that first day in NYC. That evening, we sat in the second row of Sunday in the Park With George, a sublime Stephen Sondheim musical that remains a favorite. Plus, we only paid half-price for the tickets!


  1. It makes you wonder how anything decent gets made.

    Is anything better than half-price or free?

  2. Great story. Focus groups can be interesting. Would have loved to have seen SUNDY IN THE PARK WIHT GEORGE.

  3. Pretesting, in tv and film, is the last great unrecorded process - mainly cuz they're done in secret. Shows like Star Trek,Married With Children, Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory have had their pilots altered based on such decisions and network-ordered reshoots.

    1. Think of all the movies that have been altered, too.

  4. What a great experience! How satisfying that must have been, to give your opinion on an inferior TV program and have it listened to. (Back in the day when I watched "regular" television, I would have loved that!)

    It also sounds like a wonderful trip to New York, especially half-price tickets to Sunday in the Park with George. :)

    1. Sunday in the Park was brilliant--not just the music, but the themes about art and we perceive it.

  5. YouTube is awesome.

    Not that I'm hinting here......

    1. The low-quality graphics in the post are screen caps from the YouTube video. I was surprised to find STEEL COLLAR MAN on YouTube, but you're right--YouTube is awesome! I am constantly amazed at what people have uploaded.

  6. Sounds like a fun experience. But it was awesome to hear you got to see "Sunday in the Park with George!"