Created by British born producer Bruce Landsbury, the younger brother of actress Angela Lansbury, The Magician was a solid action packed series with something of a twist in as much as the hero was a sleuthing magician who, apart from being a gifted illusionist, also possessed a photographic memory and bags of money. It probably, maybe, should have been a hit when it first appeared in 1973. It was a different take on the standard detective series, starred the amiable Bill Bixby in the lead and came from a producer who had successfully overseen 'The Wild Wild West' and 'Mission Impossible.' But due to circumstances beyond the producer's control it vanished from our screens after one season.
The back story for the series was that years earlier, our hero Tony Blake was falsely imprisoned somewhere in South America on charges of espionage. Blake and his cellmate managed to escape which inspired Blake's interest in escapology. When the cellmate died, he left his fortune to Blake. After pursuing his interest to become a master magician, Blake established himself as a leading exponent of his art. However, he never forgot his unjust imprisonment, and it motivated him to seek justice for others.
And so now Blake enjoys a lavish playboy lifestyle, drives a sports car with a personalised number plate: ‘SPIRIT’ and lives, no - honestly, inside a Boeing 720 Jetliner! And yet he never forgets or forsakes those in need of justice and uses his skills to achieve the seemingly impossible. A bit like James Bond meets The Equalizer meets Harry Houdini.
To get the series off to a good start, Lansbury employed Joseph Stefano to write the pilot episode. Stefano had previously written the screenplay for Hitchcock’s classic ‘Pyscho.’ Unsurprisingly, Stefano envisaged a somewhat dark and macabre tale until the Network stepped in and demanded a fast-paced action adventure that depicted the hero as a modern day swashbuckler and which wouldn’t scare the heebie-jeebies out of its viewers. At the same time American television, unlike its British counterpart, had strict rules on toning down violence. Hence, any US TV show that you view from that period such as ‘Hawaii Five-0’and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ normally end without anyone getting beaten, stabbed or shot and the villains appear to be quite happy to throw their arms up in defeat as if to say ‘it’s a fair cop. I’ll come quietly.’
And so, with a hero who could bamboozle his opponents with the seemingly impossible there was probably, maybe, a bit of credibility in the fact that he could disarm a no-gooder without resorting to fisticuffs or weapons. No, I’m not convinced either. Neither it seems was the NBC Network, because it scheduled the series up against very strong opposition. The two shows it was up against on primetime Monday night were ‘Gunsmoke’and ‘The Rookies,’ the latter of which enjoyed the success that came with leading into the sure-fire ratings winner ‘ Monday Night Football.’ As if that wasn’t a kick in the teeth then the fact that ‘The Magician’ was being made just as Hollywood’s scriptwriters were walking out on strike and by the time it came to screen the country was suffering a massive economic downturn due to an oil crisis, almost certainly was. A millionaire lifestyle was perhaps not what the audience wanted to see. Probably, maybe not, in fairness to the producers they did try and tone the lavishness down by moving Blake off his plane and into The Magic Castle in Hollywood, a real club devoted to magic acts.
This was to be Bill Bixby’s launch into the world of ‘straight’ television as opposed to the comedies he had come to be known for. Already a keen amateur magician he threw himself gamefully into the role, learning how to perform the magic tricks required for the series without the use of trick photography and a number of notable guest stars appeared in the series, amongst them were William Shatner, Mark Hamill and his former ‘My Favourite Martian’ co-star Ray Walston ( in an episode titled "My Favourite Magician" ). But it would be his next series, ‘The Incredible Hulk’ that would launch that period of his career. One can only wonder how the series would have been received had Joseph Stefano had been allowed to follow his original vision or if there had been more time to work on the scripts.
But the writers’ strike wasn’t settled until the late summer of 1973 and the series was due to air in October. As a result, scripts were hurriedly written without the luxury of having the time to refine them. It is quite possible that Blake’s lifestyle may have been toned down a bit before the series premiered and the changes that were made during the season; Blake’s residence, the supporting cast - as just two examples, both of which were made without explanation, impacted on the quality of the series. The Magician finished in the Nielsen ratings for the 1973-1974 TV Season 52nd out of 81 shows. Cancellation was inevitable.
Still, The Magician did have an influence on later series. The show was a apparently a favourite of ‘The X-Files’creator Chris Carter, who acknowledged it in Special Agent Fox Mulder's "origin" story: a teenaged Mulder was waiting to watch ‘The Magician’ when his sister Samantha was abducted by mysterious forces. In the ‘Quantum Leap’ episode "The Great Spontini", Scott Bakula's character, Dr. Sam Beckett, leapt into an amateur magician in 1974 who aspired to appear on Bill Bixby's ‘ The Magician.’ And in ‘The Incredible Hulk,’ Bixby teamed up once again with Ray Walston when David Banner became the temporary apprentice to a stage magician.
‘The Magician’ will go down as a failed attempt to produce a playboy-righter-of-wrongs series but US television had not quite finished with the idea yet. Remember a wealthy couple who lead a glamorous jet-set lifestyle and regularly found themselves working as un-paid detectives in order to solve crimes in which they became embroiled? ‘Hart to Hart’ took that premise and made it into a hit series. Of that, you can be under no illusion.
Published on November 1st, 2020. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.