Spencer’s Sanctorum Presents:
THE IMMORTAL (1969) – TV MOVIE (SECRET PILOT)
Review by Spencer Seams
Welcome to Spencer’s Sanctorum. This column is about old TV shows in the vein of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, ONE STEP BEYOND, and KOLCHAK THE NIGHT STALKER. I seek out the weird, goofy, and underrated episodes, the ones that nobody talks about.
I’m gonna get serious here. Everyone will die one day. Even you, reading this right now, you will die eventually. It’s part of growing up like puberty, your first kiss, your first tax return, and your second pet finch. Death is the last step. Except for those lucky few like Ben Richards (not the RUNNING MAN character, the other one, we all know Arnold is not immortal).
Despite the name, THE IMMORTAL, was a short-lived series. It began as a book called “The Immortals” by James Gunn (not that James Gunn). The film deviated from the source to be a rip-off of THE FUGITIVE (1963 – 1967), but with…magic. Of all the series I have brought up since starting the column, this breaks the record. At only 16 episodes, it was cancelled before a finale episode was filmed. ABC never gave it a real chance. The pilot was also a TV-movie, which was a common practice in the 60s and 70s. If said TV-movie was successful enough, then it’d become a series. On paper, that sounds like the makings of a hit series. Unfortunately, THE IMMORTAL went the way of KOLCHAK.
The TV-movie debuted on ABC, after THE MOD SQUAD (1968 – 1973), on Tuesday September 30, 1969 at 8:30pm. The cast included Christopher George (DIXIE DYNAMITE, 1976) as Ben Richards (The Immortal Man); Jessica Walter (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) as Janet; Carol Lynley (BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, 1965) as Sylvia; and Barry Sullivan (PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, 1965) as Jordan. The crew included director Joseph Sargent (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE—the 1974 version…the good one—and JAWS 4, 1987, also known as JAWS: THE REVENGE); writer Robert Specht (NIGHTSCREAM, 1997); makeup artist Hal Lierley (PICTURE MOMMY DEAD, 1966); and editor David Wages (HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE, 1965).
Smash-cut to Jordan and Janet Braddock in their private jet. Jordan’s an old man with a young trophy wife, half his age. In the middle of oil prices negotiations, using the original Skype, the power goes in and out. He then “Skypes” the pilots, who reassure him. Jordan switches off his audio and camera and listens to them. They hope to crash, killing this miserable old bastard. The plane then crashes.
Smash-cut to Ben Richards, hot-shot test driver and local hunk, who’s finishing up a lap. The hospital calls; they need someone’s blood for Jordan. Ben is not only hot, he’s young, never been sick, and still looks 30 (he’s 43). On top of that, he’s engaged to a blonde babe, Sylvia.
Jordan is in critical condition but the blood he receives is special. The doctors don’t understand what or why it happened. One doctor, Pearce, has an idea. Ben’s blood has every natural immunity, including one against aging. The sudden burst of youthful life in Jordan dies out soon, but he has made a rather speedy recovery. A very speedy recovery, at that.
Without much resistance, Ben becomes a guinea pig for Pearce. He injects Ben’s blood in a rat (A) and Jordan’s blood in another rat (B). There is also a control rat (C). Rats A and B remain the same age/get slightly younger. The effects are permanent in A, not in B. Ben, again, just accepts that he is immortal or at least will live for 10 lifetimes.
He and Sylvia plan on living forever together. Those dreams are dashed though. Pearce suspects that Jordan is up to no good, and warns Ben to be careful. Jordon’s an old, rich white man, and they’re dangerous.
Jordan kidnaps Ben and sends men to watch Sylvia. The old bastard is so coldly cruel, he makes a fake story of Ben’s death. Held in a plastic cage, Ben plans an escape with help from a “friend.” That friend…Janet. She hates her husband, too. After he reconnects with Sylvia, she gets shot and almost killed. Ben has his blood given to his fiancé. She recovers, but finds he’s gone. His secret is out and Jordan is looking for him and Janet. Driving off to God knows where.
End of episode.
THE IMMORTAL on paper sounds like THE FUGITIVE and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. And it is like them. It’s the bridge between these two iconic shows. However, it’s the forgotten gem in the “Man on the Run” TV genre, despite being the best one by far. I’ll try to convince you of its greatness. This is for the record; it is not better KOLCHAK. Most things aren’t, it turns out.
The premise is very comic book-y (it’s based on a book) at its core. The central character is like an X-Man without Professor X to wrangle him in. Ben Richards could have been a Marvel or DC character easily. Adapting books was nothing new. In its style, set-up, and execution, this is like a proto-KOLCHAK. Which means this influenced countless shows and movies in the following decades. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeff Rice was inspired by this in some way. The main difference between this and KOLCHAK is the humor and the cast. KOLCHAK is very funny and THE IMMORTAL is more serious, but it doesn’t take anything away. THE IMMORTAL has a better cast, overall. But no one matches the magnitude of KOLCHAK’s Darren McGavin.
As an intro to a series, you can’t get much better than this. Most secret pilots in the form TV-movies feel like “Hey! Don’t You Love These Characters? I Bet You Wanna See Them Every Week!” Also, they don’t come off as complete films. Much like the Marvel movies (to me), where they don’t seem like a complete story, merely a chapter and a half. THE IMMORTAL made confident strides into a series by knowing itself immediately and telling a full story at the same time. I attribute this quality to the director Joseph Sargent. His career was varied but he was easily capable of excellence. He manages to turn a very silly idea into something you truly care about. There is genuine pathos and suspense in this cheap TV-movie of the week. You cheer on Ben Richards. You boo Jordan. Even Janet gets a great part. It’s minimal, but she takes it, slam dunks it, and runs in a 90-yard touchdown. Jessica Walter peaks your interest with a simple look at Jordan, even when she’s lurking in the background silently. Simply, this is a fantastic film, not TV-movie, film.
You should seek this out. ABC never gave it a chance. Prove them wrong, nearly 50 years later.
THE IMMORTAL deserves KOLCHAK-level cult status.
© Copyright 2017 by Spencer Seams