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John Mantley Interview

Date: 06 Apr 1981 0835-PST 
From: Jim McGrath 
Subject: Buck Rogers 

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'' this year.

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 greatly.

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 a show.

''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.''