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Fantasy Island, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Letter’s to E.T.
“De plane! De plane!” are the famous lines you heard at the start of every episode of the TV show Fantasy Island. The plane that Tattoo (played by Hervé Villechaize) is announcing is a Grumman G-44 Widgeon seaplane with an interesting history.
I was reading about the end of the TV show Fantasy Island recently. When it ended, they sold or auctioned off a lot of the props and sets. One item they mentioned was the airplane that was used in the show. Post-show it would go onto be used in drug smuggling, but before the show, it was previously owned by Richard Bach. That was a name that sounded very familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember why.
Richard Back and Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Richard Bach wrote the best-selling novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull. If you have never read this book, you might be surprised to learn that it is actually about a seagull. The titular character is a gull that wants to improve himself, and the story is about his journey.
Originally printed in magazines in the late sixties, the book would be published in book form in 1970. It would spend 37 weeks at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, and by the end of 1972 over a million copies of it would be in print.
Naturally, when you have a massive success like that, it is natural to adapt it to the big screen.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull the Motion Picture
On October 23, 1973, a film based on Jonathan Livingston Seagull hit theaters. The film consisted of nature footage of a whole lot of seagulls coupled with voiceover work. The cinematography and editing are so well-done that they would earn nominations for Academy Awards. Unfortunately, positivity around the movie is centered mostly around those two nominations.
The film had a budget of $1.5 million and made $1.6 million, so in the end, it was profitable, but it did not do as well as the studio hoped. That was probably due to the scathing reviews the film received. This is one of only four movies that famed film critic Roger Ebert walked out on. In a review, he wrote,
This has got to be the biggest pseudocultural, would-be metaphysical ripoff of the year.
His future reviewing partner Gene Siskel would agree, calling it,
The dumbest, most patronizing movie of this or any other year.
The direction of the film was probably not helped by multiple lawsuits that changed not only scenes in the film, but also the music. Bach sued Paramount Pictures because the film differed too much from the source material.
Then Neil Diamond, who provided the music for the film, sued to have music he had written put back into the film. Both lawsuits were successful, and it substantially altered the vision of the film’s director, Hall Bartlett.
After the experience, Diamond said he wouldn’t get involved in a movie again unless he had complete creative control.
But was that completely true?
Turn on your Heartlight
Diamond did not contribute music to the film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but he did co-write a song that was inspired by the film.
Credited to Diamond, along with Carole Bayer Sager and Burt Bacharach, the song does not explicitly mention the film, but it does reference things in the film (like E.T.‘s Heartlight). The song was a hit for the singer, reaching number five on the Billboard Hot 100. This would be his eighth and final top 5 hit on the charts.
While the song is sweet and well-made, it zoomed up the chart because of its perceived connection to the film. This brought a lawsuit against Diamond who settled out of court with MCA/Universal and paid them $25,000.
This was just a drop in the well when it came to litigation around the film. There were plenty of bootleg products out there related to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial that kept lawyers very busy. I would like to talk a little about one of my favorite “official products.”
Letter’s to E.T.
Letters to E.T. is a 1983 collection of letters from fans of the film wrote to the extraterrestrial star of the movie and its creator, Steven Spielberg. Chock-full of letters like the one you see above, this book is an amazing snapshot of film fandom before the internet.
You used to be able to find this book in used book store discount bins, flea markets, and garage sales for under a dollar. That price has gone up, and you can expect to pay five or more dollars for a copy, but it is well worth it for its entertainment value.
I love that people write letters to imaginary film characters. It somehow makes the world seem sweeter and more magical.
What’s next, writing letters directly to movies?