An Exclusive Excerpt from “‘Misfits of Science': An Oral History”
Those of us who have experienced an era and lived to tell the tale are often guilty of over-romanticizing our recollections of how much more awesome things used to be “back in the day,” but with a bit of effort, we discover that it is possible to look back on our lives, acknowledge the imperfections of the past, and still find considerable enjoyment in the memories that we have accumulated.
If the preceding sentence doesn’t serve as a sufficient explanation as to why in God’s name anyone would want to put together an oral history of the short-lived superhero action/comedy series Misfits of Science, which NBC aired for a sum total of 16 episodes between October 1985 and February 1986, then let’s try this instead: for a 15-year-old kid who had a limited social life and cared more about comic books than classic literature, it was, for five brief months, the greatest TV series this side of The Greatest American Hero…and, as a result, I’ve never forgotten it.
With that said, it’s not like I’ve been sitting around obsessing about it since it went off the air. It’s just one of those fond memories from my childhood, like Automan or Mr. Merlin, that’s never quite gone away. Due to my soft spot for the series, however, when Jeff Giles, our illustrious editor here at Popdose, pitched me the idea of doing an oral history on the series, I didn’t hesitate for a moment before saying, “Dude, I could totally do that!”
So I dived headfirst into the piece, and with the help of IMDb, I was able to get in touch with members of the creative team behind the series, a few of regular cast members, and several guest stars, almost all of whom were bemused at the idea that anyone would decide to do an oral history of Misfits of Science. Still, if they had memories of their experience on the series, they offered them up without hesitation, and if they didn’t recall anything in particular, they invariably apologized for not being able to assist me in my endeavor, although my favorite response came from the agent of one of the guest stars, who said that their client “does not remember anything about the show or even being part of it.” Well, fair enough, then.
What you see before you is an excerpt of the end result of my efforts. Granted, I didn’t expect it would ever turn out to be as extensive as it’s turned out to be, but as the number of interviews and entertaining anecdotes continued to add up, it slowly but surely transformed from a brief look back into a epic reminiscence. Admittedly, the number of diehard Misfits of Science fans was never that substantial, and it’s undoubtedly grown smaller over the years, but what you’ll find as you read this oral history is that you needn’t ever have seen the show to find it interesting. You just have to like TV and enjoy reading show biz anecdotes. If that’s your cup of tea, then this should be right up your alley. Or, at least, I hope it is, anyway.
In the meantime, just remember…
“When the unusual becomes the usual,
the impossible becomes possible,
the incredible becomes credible,
and the weird gets weirder,
who do you blame?
The Misfits of Science!”
A few excerpts from “‘Misfits of Science': An Oral History,” exclusive to Popdose!
The Not-So-Secret Origin of “Misfits of Science”
James Parriott (series creator & executive producer): Television legend Brandon Tartikoff wanted to do a show about a team of people with…not necessarily superhero powers, but extraordinary abilities. First he went to Stephen J. Cannell, who turned him down and said, “No, that just sounds awful.” I think after doing The Greatest American Hero he was just sort of heroed out.
After that, I think Brandon might’ve gone to somebody else, but it could’ve just been Cannell he talked to before he went to Universal. Either way, he went to Kerry McCluggage, who was VP of Development at Universal, and said, “Do you think Parriott would be interested in doing it?” So Kerry called me, and we went down to the commissary or to the corner store and we talked about it, and we said, “Well, it’s either gonna be really cheesy and awful and a terrible flop, or it could be one of those things that just catches on and is a hit. Do we want to do it?”
I was really reluctant, because I’d started out on The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk and was trying to get away from doing that kind of show. But we went ahead and thought about it for a day, and then we finally just said, “You know, what the hell: let’s try it.” So we tried it, and the initial tone…y’know, I said, “Well, I’m not gonna do this straight! We can’t do it straight. We’ve got to have our tongue in our cheek a little bit.” So that’s how we did it. And we had a lot of fun doing it. But it turned out to be the flop.
Getting the Gang Together
Mark Thomas Miller (John “Johnny B” Bukowski): Misfits of Science was my first real job. I’d only done a couple of things before that, and I really wasn’t…to be honest with you, I was just a bad auditioner. I could do it well now, but back then I was just too nervous. I mean, it took me seven years to get my first job, really. But when I saw the script for Misfits of Science, I was, like, “Okay, I have to do this. This is mine. If I can’t get this right, then I should quit.” It was just that clear. I was, like, “I can’t screw this up.” So I was pretty obsessed. Just my behavior, I would say, more than anything else. But, like, in the past, I was trying everything to control my nerves, and I’d go in buzzed on some beer, anything I could do to try and calm myself down. This one, though, I was just locked on, like a soldier.
It was almost too easy for me to play Johnny B. For one thing, I was in a punk band in college, and I played in a couple of other really crappy bands, so there was that. But, y’know, I think when you’re young and you’re kind of a self-obsessed actor, you think your emotions are so unique and no one understands the depth of your pain and all that narcissistic crap… Yeah, it was just too easy. It was an easy part for a kid. “Look at me, I’m in pain! I have feelings! No one understands me!” My kid’s only five, and he’s already playing those notes. “You don’t understand!” Uh, yeah, I do, actually…
Mark Thomas Miller: I met Courteney Cox the day that we shot the scene on the beach in Venice, which was rather ironic, because I lived half a block away from that. I lived right on the beach. Actually, there’s a scene later in some episode where I’m sitting on a wall, and my building’s the one right next door. So, yeah, I walked right out to the beach there, right on Westminster, we had the trailers, and I was introduced to her, and then we shot the scene where…let’s see, some guy on a skimboard splashes me, and she makes him wipe out. I think our introduction scene in the show was the first time I met her. She was young and beautiful, and she was the kind of girl that everyone in the whole cast and crew adopted as their little sister. I mean, there wasn’t a single person that had any negative to say, not a single person who wasn’t in love with her and didn’t want to take her home. That’s just who she was. You were just, like, “Wow, you got the job…” I don’t think all of us had even seen the Springsteen video (“Dancing in the Dark”), and it probably wouldn’t have mattered if we had. I think we were all too caught up in our own crap. Courteney…I could never say a bad thing about her. Even to this day, she’s just the sweetest, nicest person I’ve met in this town.
Donald Todd (writer & supervising producer): I became very good friends with Dean Paul Martin. I was Dean Paul’s only normal guy friend. That’s what he called me. He said, “You’re my normal guy friend.” He was Hollywood royalty, and he only knew that world. And I was this kid from the south who drove this 1968 Camaro SS, red with a white racing stripe. And he thought that was really cool, and he wanted to do a show about a guy who drove a Camaro and solved crimes. He thought we should do that show. So we would hang out, and he would take me to Vegas to show me how that’s done, and I would take him to my house to show him how normal people live.
Mark Thomas Miller: Kevin Peter Hall…I stood up at his wedding. Like I said, he was one of my closest friends. I didn’t have a lot—I still don’t!—but these guys were really generous. We had a lot in common, doing the same thing at the same time. He and I were both fish out of water. Kevin was from Pennsylvania and I was from New York, and we were all just kind of winging it. He was one of the sweetest, nicest guys I’ve ever met. You’ll never find anyone saying anything bad about Kevin. He was just a great guy. Such a sweet guy. His only problem was that, after two glasses of wine, you had to carry him to the car…and he was 320 pounds! And that’s not an exaggeration: I literally had to carry him to my car and drive him home after two glasses of wine. He was such a lightweight. But he—like the rest of them—was generous, loving, and…just good people.
Donald Todd: My relationship with Max Wright got me my next job after Misfits of Science. I had an agent, but a brand new agent, and I was a brand new writer, so I just had to be aggressive. When Misfits of Science ended and then Max got cast on the show ALF, I just had my agent call his agent…which is a weird thing. I wouldn’t think about doing that now. But I had my agent call his agent to have Max call the producers and say they should hire me. And it worked! It at least got me a meeting, anyway. That’s something that I don’t think too many other actors would do. Or maybe I didn’t give him a lot of choice!
Max and I… Maybe I was just naïve at the time, but my wife and I would invite people over to have dinner. That’s how we got to meet people. And Max came over. He was out here, and he didn’t have…I think his family was back in New York, and he was alone out here, so he’d come to dinner at our house. I just thought he was the greatest guy. He eventually ended up with some bizarre troubles that I could not even imagine.
But I do remember Max disappearing from the set one day. We’d had an argument on the set, and he said, “I need a minute.” And he disappeared from the set. And we waited and waited. We shot some other stuff, then we went to his trailer, but he wasn’t there. He disappeared! And then he calls me a few hours later and says, “Uh, I’m in New York. I’m sorry. I just needed to get away.” He’d gone to the Burbank airport and gotten a flight to JFK. And he came back the next day, but that was the beginning of what I believe were some, uh, troubles he went through. But I was, like, “Oh, okay, I guess this happens. I guess people just fly to New York to take a moment…”
A Few Words from a Few Guest Stars
Jesse Dizon (Link in “Lost Link”): I had some stuntmen doubling for me on various scenes, but there was one scene at the end of the episode where we were at Edwards Air Force Base, and there’s a Space Shuttle where I’m supposed to take this doll, which is supposed to house my son’s soul, and I say goodbye to the Misfits. Now, we were running late that day because we had a lot of stuff to do, and the sun was going down, and we had time just for one take of this one scene, where I say goodbye, I turn and face the Space Shuttle, and I just turn and walk toward the Shuttle. The sun’s setting, so it’s a very picturesque shot, so it was important to get it nailed…because it looked good, but also because the Air Force wanted us off the base! [Laughs.] So we start the scene, I say goodbye, and I start walking…and walking and walking and walking and walking. Finally, they yelled “cut,” by which point I’ve walked a really long distance. Everyone’s cheering, they’re going, “We did it! We’re on time! Jesse, we love you!” At this point, I turn around and, screaming, I go, “Excuse me, can someone come pick me up?” They said, “What’s the matter?” Now, if you remember the episode, Link was barefoot the whole time. Well, after I said goodbye and took my first step, it was right onto a huge thorn—we’re talking about an inch and a half—from one of the short bushes that I had to walk over. This is my first step, but I had to keep walking, and fortunately the camera was behind me, because I was crying, and it’s also fortunate that it was supposed to be a slow, dramatic, heartfelt walk away, because that’s about as fast as I could move! So, thankfully, one of the grips ran down and picked me up, and they saw all this blood coming out of my foot, and I turned around to Chris and say weakly, “We got the shot, right?” Dino comes over and gives me a hug and says, “Yeah, we got the shot! Now somebody call the nurse!”
Christopher Murray (Syl in “Sort of Looking for Gina”): Dean Paul Martin came from kind of the same background. In fact, my mother (Hope Lange) did a movie called The Young Lions with his dad (Dean Martin). He was just a really nice guy, a really affable guy. It’s just ironic that the day his plane crashed—he was in the Air National Guard—was the first day I had a speaking role in a movie, the remake of And God Created Woman. So in addition to getting the role where I worked with him, the day he died was also a seminal moment in my career. But I just remember that, for the star of a show, he was just so nice…but, then, everyone was really nice back then. Nowadays you have to be so guarded, and they treat the material like a national secret. You rarely get the entire script. On a show like Mad Men, we weren’t even allowed to take the material home! Even after we did the table read, we had to leave the script there. I just think it sets up this aura of exclusivity that I don’t find particularly helpful, because, y’know, as a weekly guest star or even as a day player, you’re still part of the team for that amount of time. Granted, they’re gonna go on with other episodes after you leave, but it’s hard enough to step into a group of people who’ve already been working together constantly and try to fit in. With this kind of separation that they’ve incorporated into the process…well, it’s just not as much fun as it used to be. You feel like you’re always auditioning, even when you’re already got the job! But, hey, it’s still the second best job in the world after Derek Jeter’s…
Robin Riker (Sarah in “Grand Theft Bunny”): A couple of years ago, just as Cougar Town was being cast, I went in to meet Bill Lawrence, the producer of the show, and, of course, Courteney. I don’t know if David (Arquette) was there with her, but Courteney was definitely in the room. Now, remember that, since doing Misfits of Science, I’d subsequently been a leading lady or a regular in four or five other television series, and I’ve acquired a lot of other credits in between those, but I like to keep my credits in the most current decade. So I do the audition, and I’m chatting with Bill Lawrence. I liked him, and he liked me, too. In fact, when I did the audition, he said, “My God, you’re the only person who’s ever read that line the way I intended it to be spoken!” But, anyway, afterward, one of them asked me a question or something, and I turned to Courteney and said, “You know, Courteney, you’ve actually been to my home.” She said, “Really?” I said, “Yeah, I did an episode of Misfits of Science and had a Valentine’s Day party, and you and Kevin and several of the other people came to the party.” And she looked at me and said, “You did Misfits of Science?” I said, “Yeah!” She said, “Why isn’t it on your resume?” I said, “Is it on yours?” She was, uh, not amused, I have to say. Not at all amused. She was not exactly warm and fuzzy to me. But, you know, some people are happy to meet somebody who knew them before they were famous, and then other people don’t want to ever be reminded that they have not always been famous. So I think maybe that was part of what happened. But I’m not sure. Either way, I didn’t get the part on Cougar Town.
Looking Back at the Legacy
Donald Todd: I remember that time on Misfits of Science fondly now, but at the time it was a massive pain in the ass. When you’re working that hard under that kind of duress with that small a staff…I think everything is stressful! I don’t know if Jim had any fun, but I know you remember it as fun after it’s over. At the time, though, I was thinking, “Is this my life? Am I going to be working seven days a week?” And it turns out that, yeah, it is my life. But that’s only because I do pilots. If you don’t create your own shows, you don’t have to work that hard. But if you create your own shows, you’re always working.
Mark Thomas Miller: I don’t really talk to anybody about Misfits of Science, but…we’re moving warehouses (at my company), and last week I found a box, and in it was my old Misfits jacket. It had some mold on it, it was pretty beat up, but I thought, “Geez, I’ve got two little boys now, they may want to play around with this when they get older.” So I just got it back from the leather cleaners, and it’s hanging right up here in my office. I can’t even get one arm in it! I, uh, think I’ve gotten a little bigger…
James Parriott: Most people, when they bring it up don’t go, “Oh, that stinker…” They go, “Oh, I watched that when I was a kid! I loved it!” And you go, “Oh, okay, good!”
Donald Todd: It’s amazing how much I remember. I really didn’t think I remembered much. But, y’know, it’s a show that develops a larger following the farther you get from it. Unfortunately, my Misfits jacket doesn’t quite fit anymore, either—I’ve decided that it’s not me, that it’s that the styles were tighter back then and were supposed to be snug—but it fits my wife, so she wears it on occasion, and people go, “Oh, my God,” and they claim to remember the show. But I still get a lot more mileage out of ALF, frankly.
WANT TO READ MORE?
You can purchase the full version of Will Harris’s “‘Misfits of Science': An Oral History,” which also features reminiscences from Diane Civita Cary (Miss Nance), Doug Hale (Kerry McDermitt in “Three Days of the Blender”), Joel Polis (Lonnie & Dwayne in “Twin Engines”), Rhonda Aldrich (Gina in “Sort of Looking for Gina”), John Schuck (Galenkov in “Grand Elusion”), Andrew Masset (Cassatti in “Once Upon a Night”), and Joseph Brutsman (Agent Jeff in “Once Upon a Night”), for the highly affordable price of $1.00 by clicking here.