There are some things you don’t do. Some forces you don’t mess with. Earlier this year, NBC had the idea to re-make The Rockford Files. John Nolte at Big Hollywood had a simple message. “Forget about it.”
Here’s the message: You can’t remake “The Rockford Files.” You can call a television show “The Rockford Files…” you can call your parakeet “The Rockford Files,” but that doesn’t mean it’s “The Rockford Files.”
That show was James Garner, and if you’ve recently watched any of the episodes you know that the thirty-years that have passed since the program went off the air in 1980 have only served to cement its timelessness and status as a true classic. Sure, the sports coats might be a little loud and the sideburns too long, but Mike Post’s iconic theme, that awesome gold Pontiac Firebird and some of the best writing ever seen on television have kept the series as entertaining, compelling and fresh as anything produced today.
Someone at NBC agreed and the remake was shelved. What’s another tough act to follow? How about Pat Novak, Jack Webb’s pre-Dragnet cult Classic? A theatre in Seattle will try just that. On July 6, Pat Novak opened for a four week run of four of the original episodes every Tuesday in the month of July. Instead of Webb, actor Matt Fulbright will be taking on the lead role of our favorite waterfront patsy.
The plans by the folks at Stage Right theater is for local writers to create new chapters in the Pat Novak story. Can they really pick up right where Webb and writer Richard Breen left off sixty-one years ago? It’ll be interesting to see them try and the effort takes some guts.
Of course, the last time someone tried to play Novak on a regular basis, it was 1947. Jack Webb had played in the local transcriptions in San Francisco of Pat Novak, but he and Richard Breen they ran quick, like a politician trying to get away from the press outside a grand jury.
Ben Morris became the new Pat Novak and the show remained on the air. But as Michael Hayde reports in his book, My Name’s Friday, letters poured into KGO disapproving the change and demanding the return of Webb. Webb started his copycat show, Johnny Madero and Pat Novak left the air at the end of 1947 until it was resurrected for its national run, with the only man who could play the role in the lead-Jack Webb
What time and experience suggests is that when a lead character is created on television or the radio, it’s very hard to replace them with someone else. This isn’t the case with characters whose origins trace back to literature. Countless men have played Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Father Brown, etc. A character whose origin lies in literature gives the audience a basis for the image of the character that doesn’t depend on the actor. On the other hand, if a character is created on television or in Novak’s case, on the radio, the actor’s unique characterization of the character becomes definitive and its hard to shake. That’s not to say it hasn’t been tried, but from the 2005 remake of Kojak to a variety of Classic TV made into crummy movies, audiences aren’t interested.
Of course, the Stage Right theater has an advantage on those remaking more recent works. Characters like Jim Rockford, Kojak, Adrian Monk, and Lieutenant Columbo have a gigantic body of work that’s got a wide-range of availability. However, with the exception of Old Time radio stations, and a few albums, and websites, Pat Novak has been little heard of in the past sixty-one years. If you find one person in 200 who knows who Pat Novak is, you’re doing good. Rather than trying to remake the widely known, they’re introducing a new generation to a character they’ve never heard of before. So, they don’t have a ton of expectations or preconceived notions to battle with.
I’ve not been to the show, as I don’t live in Seattle. But if Ilved in Seattle, I would check it out and I’d also be there for when they start to do new episodes. Can they capture the magic of Academy Award Winner Richard Breen and create memorable adventures that ring true to the character? If they can, then Pat Novak could be running for quite a while. One thing I’ve learned from doing this show is that if people like Pat Novak, they will want more of it. I wish them all the best.