By JERRY BUCK AP Television Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) - John Mantley, who has a reputation
as a doctor of sick TV shows, has been attending to an anemic ''Buck Rogers''
The patient has shown signs of improvement, but
the likelihood of a full recovery seems remote.
''What I'm putting on the air today is a far cry
from what I ought to be doing,' said Mantley. ''The holes in some scripts
are embarrassing, but we don't have time to correct them.''
Mantley, who previously produced ''Wild Wild West,''
''Gunsmoke'' and ''How the West Was Won,'' took over the NBC series after
it had limped along for two years.
''This is absolutely the most difficult project
I've ever done,'' he said. ''You've got to create a new world every week.
You've got a new wardrobe, new location and all kinds of effects. We have
enormous wardrobe problems, enormous set problems, enormous makeup problems,
enormous budget problems.
''You spend so much time on the effects you don't
have time for the human stories. Without the actors' strike, which gave
us time to prepare, this show would have self-destructed in a few weeks.''
In the Thursday night series, Gil Gerard stars
as Buck Rogers, a present-day astronaut who is frozen while on a space
mission and wakes up in the 25th century. Erin Gray stars as Wilma Deering.
The series is adapted from the comic strip created in 1929 by Dick Calkins
and Phil Nowlan.
Mantley said he agreed to take over the show for
several reasons. For one, he owed favors to people, not the least of whom
was Fred Silverman, president of NBC. ''Fred said it has potential, and
maybe you can fix it,'' he said. ''I owed a lot to Fred.''
Another reason, he said, ''I've always loved science
fiction. My first book, 'The 27th Day,' was science fiction and was made
into a movie. I wrote science fiction for the pulps, and I own the rights
to Isaac Asimov's 'I, Robot' and 'The Rest of the Robots.'
''And the third reason,'' Mantley said, ''is that
the remuneration was extraordinary.''
He wouldn't mention a figure, but reports in the
industry indicate his salary is not merely extraordinary - it is astronomical.
Few television stars make as much. The reason he was able to command such
a salary was that Universal was anxious to recover its enormous investment
in the show. If Mantley could just keep ''Buck Rogers'' going a few more
years, the syndication and merchandising value of the series would increase
After looking at only a few shows, Mantley said
he knew he had to drastically revamp the show. ''For my taste, I thought
the shows were empty,'' he said, ''but I don't think I've done a hell of
a lot better.
''The first thing I did was get them away from
Earth. I felt it as a restrictive atmosphere, and so did the network. I
came up with the concept of the Searcher, a spaceship looking for the 'lost
tribes of Earth.' In every great civilization there have been migrations,
from the Puritans to the boat people. It seemed to be to be logical that
after the atomic war people would have left Earth.''
He also set out to give Buck Rogers more dimension
as a character. ''I wanted to stretch Gil Gerard as I did James Arness
on 'Gunsmoke,' '' he said.
Some of the changes caused controversy. Some viewers
had complained that the voice of Twiki the robot was too cute. But even
more viewers demanded the return of Mel Blanc as the voice. ''So we brought
Mel back and got still more letters,'' Mantley said.
One characteristic of science fiction fans is
that they are not reluctant to take pen in hand to express a thought about
''It seems astounding,'' said Mantley. ''A thousand
years ago when I did 'Wild Wild West' I never got letters telling me how
to do the show. Now we get some very intelligent letters that go into great
detail. And some are violently opposed to the changes. In 11 years of 'Gunsmoke'
I don't think I got more than a handful of letters expressing anger over
a show. But science fiction has very, very devoted fans.''