Celebrate the 35th Anniversary of BLUE THUNDER: The Series in October on getTV
Movies have been adapted for TV for as long as the medium has existed. But, for every enduring success, there are hundreds of short-lived failures. M*A*S*H may be a timeless classic, but when was the last time you watched the TV version of Casablanca? Dirty Dancing? Ferris Bueller? Did you even know they existed?
Sometimes, an adaptation is rushed to the air to capitalize on box office success and doesn’t get a chance to find its own unique voice (or an audience). This was the case with Blue Thunder, the action-packed but short-lived TV series based on John Badham’s Oscar-nominated 1983 film. And you can see what we mean as getTV presents two back-to-back episodes of Blue Thunder Saturday late nights in October starting at 2a ET!
Written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall) and Don Jakoby (Arachnophobia), Blue Thunder (the movie) spun the tale of an experimental helicopter patrolling the Los Angeles skies for a shadowy — they’re always shadowy — government organization with unclear motives. Roy Scheider played maverick pilot Frank Murphy, with Daniel Stern as his whiz kid co-pilot and Warren Oates as their grizzled commander. Along with WarGames, it spooked moviegoers in the summer of 1983 with reminders that technology might not be our friend.
As quickly as the film soared to the box office stratosphere, TV networks began efforts to capitalize on its success. Columbia Pictures Television tapped producer Roy Huggins (Maverick, The Fugitive, The Rockford File) to adapt Blue Thunder for ABC, while Universal developed the similarly themed Airwolf with writer/producer Donald P. Bellisario (Magnum P.I.) for CBS.
Blue Thunder: Roy Scheider and James Farentino
Blue Thunder hit the airwaves first on January 6, 1984 — just a few months after the film was in theaters — with James Farentino in the starring role. The 45-year-old actor had been a familiar face for two decades, with a Golden Globe as a randy bachelor in The Pad And How To Use It (1966) and an Emmy nomination as the apostle Simon Peter in Jesus Of Nazareth (1977). (How’s that for a diverse resume?) Like Scheider’s character, Farentino’s Frank was a Viet Nam veteran, but without the dark, PTSD subplot that had been a key element of the film. He also sported a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, an homage to his portrayer’s native borough.
Blue Thunder: Dana Carvey and James Farantino
Blue Thunder’s doofus co-pilot Clinton Wonderlove — nicknamed JAFO for “Just Another Frustrated Observer” — was played by Dana Carvey, who would become a superstar two years later when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. Carvey had previously played Mickey Rooney’s straight man in the short-lived NBC sitcom One Of The Boys (co-starring Nathan Lane), but Blue Thunder was his dramatic TV debut. Carvey’s skills as a comedian and impressionist were shoehorned into the show, with JAFO imitating Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Alfred Hitchcock, usually followed by an awkward laugh by Farentino.
Blue Thunder: Dana Carvey, Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus
Ground support was provided by “Ski” Butowski (Dick Butkus) and “Bubba” Kelsey (Bubba Smith, pre-Police Academy), two bruisers who also provided muscle when needed. They traveled around in the “Rolling Thunder” mobile unit, a van destined to become a toy if Blue Thunder had been successful. As in real life, Ski and Bubba were retired football players. Butkus was one of the NFL’s most feared tacklers with the Chicago Bears from 1965 until 1973 and Smith spent nine seasons as a defensive end with the Colts, Raiders and Oilers. Sandy McPeak rounded out the cast as the perma-exasperated commanding officer, with Ann Cooper as dispatcher J.J. Douglas.
Blue Thunder Cast: (clockwise) Ann Cooper, Dick Butkus, Bubba Smith, Sandy McPeak, Dana Carvey, and James Farentino.
While the characters were mostly the same, the two versions of Blue Thunder could not have been more different in tone. The film was a cautionary tale about the dangers of a militarized police force, with the “hero” helicopter essentially cast as the villain — and (SPOILER ALERT) killed off at the end. The TV show is a light-hearted action fantasy, with the copter reimagined as a mechanized guardian angel. Its Orwellian capabilities — stealth technology, night vision, eavesdropping from a height of two miles — are used only for good. One approach worked for an R-rated thriller, the other for a Friday night action show sandwiched between Webster and Matt Houston (starring getTV favorite Lee Horsley).
Ratings started strong, sparked by the film’s big budget aerial action sequences repurposed for the small screen. But, programmed against Dallas — TV’s top-rated show — audiences quickly lost interest. By the time the tenth episode was completed, Huggins had stepped away as showrunner, frustrated by network interference. The show did a soft reboot a month later for episode eleven, replacing Carvey with Lisa Sutton as co-pilot and sending the team on what would have been the first in a series of international missions. But despite this creative shift, Blue Thunder was not renewed by ABC and permanently grounded after just eleven shows. Ironically, the finale is the strongest episode, demonstrating what might have been.
The problem with TV’s Blue Thunder was its inconsistency. Carvey, Butkus and Smith were essentially playing it for laughs, with characterizations that felt borrowed from action-comedies like The A-Team. Farantino was serious as a heart attack, seemingly longing to headline a straight-up adventure show that didn’t feature two ex-football stars cracking jokes. Either approach might have worked on its own. Mashed together, it left Blue Thunder sputtering all over the creative map.
Because of its limited number of episodes, Blue Thunder has rarely been rerun since its original broadcast. But getTV is proud to bring this TV obscurity back to the air for its 35th anniversary! Catch 8 episodes Saturday late nights in October, including the pilot on October 19 at 2 a.m.
And watch the skies for our next rare TV classic: Raven with Jeffrey Meek and Lee Majors – coming to Saturday late nights in November! Read more about that series here.
Raven: Jeffrey Meek and Lee Majors
Blue Thunder airs Saturday nights at 2a ET, two episodes back-to-back. And don’t miss Raven, coming to Saturday late nights in November! For more, visit the getTV schedule.