How NBC’s Supertrain Went Off the Rails
If you have not seen or heard of the TV show, Supertrain, you are probably jokingly thinking, “does this show take place on some sort of Super Train?”
The answer to that question is resounding “Yes,” but it gets even better. Not only was this train super, but it was also nuclear-powered. So how does an anthology series, set on a nuclear-power bullet train, but in the style of The Love Boat make it onto TV?
In the Seventies, anthology television was doing well. Every week, television viewers would tune-in to watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island on ABC. Naturally, the other networks wanted a piece of this glamorous and popular trend and they would spin out shows to compete. One such show was the 1979 NBC series, Supertrain.
Supertrain wouldn’t have existed without the effort of NBC President, Fred Silverman. When he joined NBC in 1978, he was already a TV legend known for his “Golden Gut” when choosing shows. After starting at a local TV stating in Chicago, Silverman moved to CBS and rose to head of programming in the early Seventies. He would be credited with the famous “Rural Purge” and bring on shows like All In The Family, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
He would then move over the struggling ABC network. There he would champion shows like Charlie’s Angels, Happy Days, The Loveboat and Laverne & Shirley. He was on a roll and in high demand. So it was not surprising when NBC invited him to take the reigns.
His streak ended when he reached NBC. While he would have some hits like Hill Street Blues, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life he also greenlit failures like The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo and Supertrain.
The idea for the show actually came from Executive Vice President for Programming, Paul Klein. Klein was a big name in television at the time famous for his idea of the LOP or least objectionable program. The idea was that viewers were not looking for a show they loved, but rather the one they found the least objectionable.
Klein was at NBC when Silverman arrived and everyone expected to be a short-lived relationship between the two. It was, Klein would be shown the door at NBC in 1979. That was well after the idea for Supertrain was pitched.
As it turns out, a train pitch was a good idea because, for some reason, Silverman’s golden gut was screaming out for a show about a train, so a team was brought together to get the job done.
Supertrain was created by Donald E. Westlake & Earl W. Wallace. Both experienced writers, this would be the first and only TV show that they would be credited with creating.
Both had really solids writing careers. After Supertrain, Westlake would go onto write films like The Grifters (1990) and Payback (1999). While Wallace would be best remembered for tv shows like How the West Was Won (1976) and movies like Witness (1985).
Their concept for the show, while silly-sounding was actually a time-tested format for anthology television. It just happened to take place on a futuristic train.
The train would be the background for the show. A means to bring in a revolving cast of characters who would get a story that would resolve by the end of each episode. Then they would get off the train and a new story could begin. It was very close to the plot of The Love Boat, enough so that people early press accused the show of just being “Love Boat” on tracks.
One big problem the show had WAS the Supertrain. You couldn’t just introduce this bit of science-fiction and then proceed to ignore it. No, the train itself and showing it off was a big part of the show. This did not go unnoticed by critics at the time.
Syndication’s highly-promoted new ‘Supertrain’ series features a slick new train of tomorrow, with a script from yesterday…it seeks to overwhelm, but underwhelms instead.
– Variety (1979)
To produce the show, they brought on experienced writer, director, producer Dan Curtis. Horror fans will remember Curtis as the person behind the TV show Dark Shadows and the Trilogy of Terror. He also collaborated with Richard Matheson on the original Night Stalker movie with Darren McGavin.
Supertrain was Super Expensive
NBC saw big potential in the show, at least NBC chief Fred Silverman did. He dropped every new NBC show that season, but one, Supertrain. He then proceeded to spare no expense on the show.
For the train, they toyed with using miniatures for the shoot but quickly realized that this would not look realistic. They then considered using a real train and dressing it to look futuristic. Again they worried about “realism.” They thought the audience would see right through the dressing. Seeing no alternative, they decided to invest in their own Supertrain sets and models.
News stories before its release were wowed by the projected two million dollars in construction costs. That figure, as it turned out, would be very low. The numbers would climb ever higher as the train and its sets got more elaborate. In the end, the real dollar figures were north of ten million dollars. Much of that went into the remarkable train models and sets that depicted the modern chrome locomotive.
To get things done they brought in Art Director, Ned Parsons, who built the entire train from scratch in just over three months. Something that the media said should “have taken a normal man at least a year.” He took his job very seriously, studying existing train systems and futuristic ones.
I visited libraries and museums for miles around, reading about trains and studying designs. I also sent for material from around the world. I learned that the most modern trains operating today are in Japan and Canada, and I asked for details about the trains.
Ned Parsons (Art Director for Supertrain)
To get the job done on time, Parsons moved from his Newport Beach, CA home to the MGM studio lot. On-Call 24 hours a day, he supervised a staff of over 200 construction workers who worked around the clocks in three shifts.
The Supertrain Specifications
The Supertrain consists of Nine cars that are 64 feet long, 24 feet wide, and double-decker. Running on tracks that are 10 feet wide, if the train was real it would be twice the size of any train running at the time.
The train needed to have all of the amenities of a first-class hotel or cruise ship and therefore they had a car with a barbershop, beauty salon, dining cars, discotheque, gymnasium, and even a swimming pool. Combine that with engines and guest rooms and you can see how epic this train would be.
The project schedule was daunting as was the scope of the build. They were spending upwards of $60,000 a day on materials. Carpenters were in especially high demand and were earning about $1,000 per week. That is the equivalent of over $3,600 nowadays. By the end of the build, they had used enough lumber to build 22 homes.
The sets were not the only thing that needed completion, they also built 1.5 inch scale model of the train to be used in outdoor shooting for exteriors or 1’5″:1′. This means that for every foot of full-sized train, the model would be 1.5 inches.
This model-build not only covered the complete Supertrain but 3000 feet of snap-track that could be easily assembled and dissembled for exterior shots. Famously one of these trains would be damaged during the shoot during a derailment.
A Stationary Train
While the model train was used to capture motion, the big train sets would of course never leave their stage. To give the train the illusion of movement, they would mount real cameras on trains and capture footage as they rode across country. Then they would project this footage on a huge screen outside of the windows of the Supertrain set.
After just a few months and millions of dollars spent. Not only did NBC have some impressive looking train sets, but they had also built the most expensive sets ever made for a television show.
The Supertrain on NBC’s Today Show
To help promote the show, NBC’s Today Show did a segment all about Supertrain. The filmed package has wonderful behind the scenes footage of the sets under construction and an interview with Parsons.
The presenter of the segment, Jack Perkins, makes a very telling remark. Normally when he would visit a set, he would interview the star of the tv show or movie, but not for Supertrain, because as many critics pointed out at the time, the actual star of the show was the train.
In addition to the train, Supertrain had a solid human cast as well. Assembled on short notice, it was still like Love Boat, filled with a solid group of veteran character actors. Some would be on the show from episode one, while others would be brought on later when they attempted to fix the show.
Edward Andrews as Harry Flood
Harrison Page as George Boone
Robert Alda as Dr. Dan Lewis
Patrick Collins as Dave Noonan
Nita Talbot as Rose Casey
Aarika Wells as Gilda
Bill Nuckols as Wally
Michael DeLano as Lou Atkins
Charlie Brill as Robert
Ilene Graff as Penny Whitaker
In theory, the cast did not need to be big or have a big headliner because of the nature of the show. Every week a new set of passengers, often played by well-known actors, would climb aboard. In just 9 episodes, they managed to bring in many stars including favorites like Tony Danza, Jamie Farr, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bernie Kopell, Lyle Waggoner, Peter Lawford, Mako, Abe Vigoda, Steve Lawrence, Cleavon Little, Loretta Swit, Vic Tayback, Joyce DeWitt, Sally Kirkland, and Billy Barty.
While a good list of people to have on your show, it is not particularly “star-studded” when you think about the money and effort that had been spent. This is probably because of the rush to production. Actors are often booked many months in advance. So any bigger stars they might have pursued would not have been able to commit on short notice.
The Train Lives!
After the demise of the show, people began to speculate as to the fate of the model train. Many thought it lost, but in 2018, Ben Thoburn of Coinopwarehouse was out buying an old jukebox when he was offered a train in an old barn that turned out to be the long lost model.
“It’s going to be Love Boat with the action of Fantasy Island on a high-speed train.”
That is the gist of the pitch going around for Supertrain when it was being produced. While understandable to anyone trying to grasp the idea of the show, it left a lot of room open for interpretation. The tone of Love Boat and Fantasy Island were very different. Love Boat focusing on fun romance with light drama elements. While Fantasy Island leaned into dramatic fantasy with light comic elements.
According to producer Curtis, the network wanted him to add some mystery. So each episode would have thrilling Hitchcockian elements in it. This note would make it into the show and would later become a point of contention between the network and Curtis.
One thing you will not find fault with after watching Supertrain is the music. The driving disco music was provided by frequent Dan Curtis collaborator Bob Cobert.
Cobert, who passed away at the start of 2020, provided music for the Dark Shadows TV series and would get an Emmy nomination for his work on War and Remembrance.
His work on Supertrain was really good, but sadly too short-lived. Cobert managed to get some more mileage out of it by recycling a few bars as the theme song for the game show, Chain Reaction.
After the show got retooled, it got a more boring theme song. Here is the original and the retooled version for your enjoyment.
Supertrain leaves the station and derails
With lots of promotion and advertising that started back in 1978, Supetrain made a special two-hour premiere on February 7, 1979. That night ABC ran a 2-hour Charlie’s Angels special against it. The results were not good. The inaugural episode received a 21.8 rating and a 32 share. It finished 17th for the week. This was respectable, but not amazing, especially for a show this expensive.
That would turn out to be the highpoint of the show’s ratings. The following week the show attracted just a 20 share and would just keep falling.
Simply put, people saw the show and it didn’t live up to the hype. It dazzled at first with its science fiction train, but that couldn’t compensate for mediocre scripts and direction that focused on the train. Focusing heavily on the train was a mistake.
When you first see it, you see this gleaming futuristic machine, but as the show continued, the shine was quickly replaced by disbelief. You start to realize just how small the train was for its intended purpose. This is especially apparent when you see the pool. It just doesn’t look glamorous.
As I mentioned earlier, Variety savaged the show in their February 1979 review stating that “Without better scripts, the train’s trek may well end in 13 weeks. More emphasis on characters, less on the train, is in order.”
This turned out to prophetic because, in just under 3 months, Supertrain would gone.
They did try and retool the show along the way. Bringing in new talent and even trying to change the tone of later episodes by adding a laugh track. These changes just made the show seem even more disjointed and did nothing to get ratings back on track.
The Blame Game
You cannot have a failure this epic and not start pointing fingers. With Supertrain, the powers that be began putting the blame on producer Dan Curtis. They accused him of overspending in the pursuit of style over substance and by late February he was removed from the show. Put nicely by NBC Programming Executive, John McMahon,
“Dan did a terrific job on ‘Supertrain’ in mounting it and getting it ready. There are just some minor disagreements on future directions of the show. We kind of agreed to disagree.”
Curtis, who was not known to pull punches countered in interviews by saying,
You want to know the truth? I don’t think they really know what the hell the show should be.
What followed in the press is a classic blame game. Where the network criticizes Curtis for decisions he made about the show and Curtis firing back with the confusing nature of their notes.
Did they want Love Boat, Murder on the Orient Express, or a combination of both? Because of conflicting stories, it is unclear. What is clear?
This show was rushed into production by new leadership trying to make its mark.
Its production focused on expensive sets that failed to impress.
The viewing public didn’t like the show.
Retooling the show was a failure as well and by the end of the Summer of 1979, NBC officially canceled Supertrain. In addition to normal production losses, the network also had a deal with the BBC to air the show fall through.
Selling shows to international markets was a great way to recoup costs and with the hype around Supertrain, prices climbed. The BBC would spend $25,000 per hour segment of the show. Which was one of the higher prices paid for such a deal and it would air the show in the fall of 1979. Unfortunately for NBC, the show was an immediate bomb and the BBC chose to never air the show.
Silverman would last just three years at NBC and while he would do some good work, the network struggled and continued to finish in third place. Then in 1980, the network took a big hit when the United States decided to boycott the Summer Olympics. Coverage and public interest in the event were drastically reduced. NBC would lose tens of millions of dollars on the venture.
By 1981, Silverman was out, replaced by Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff, who would eventually turn around the fortunes of the ailing network.
As for Curtis, he would recover from the bad press and go on mini-series fame. Adapting Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” to the small screen and winning Emmys for the follow-up, “War and Remembrance.” Both were epic dramas that I watched with my grandmother as a kid. She couldn’t get enough of the drama. I liked the WWII stuff and getting to stay up and watch them.
He was very tight-lipped about working on the show in his later years. When asked about it, Curis would usually replay, “Super what?”
In retrospect, Supertrain seems improbable. Like something that would be made up as a joke about crazy TV pitches. But somehow this show not only was made but was done so on an unprecedented scale.
While watching it now, it is almost too easy to mock, I enjoy watching it because it wonderfully captures the excesses of network TV at their high point. Much like a lot of what was being attempted on TV, it came in a slick disco package, but inside their just wasn’t much to see. Still, that makes the show a fascinating time capsule and fun to watch.
Even if you don’t love it, at least you can tell people you just watched a TV show about a nuclear-powered bullet train that helped to almost bankrupt a major TV network. If that isn’t a conversation starter, I don’t know what is.