The 1970s served up some super fantastical television series — Battlestar Galactica, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels, etc. But, like the cinema of the era, a lot of TV was rooted in reality.
More shows than you realize were based on a true story, ripped from headlines, and inspired by real people. Let's dive in.
Images: The Everett Collection
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Black Sheep Squadron
This World War II aerial adventure gave the Hollywood treatment to the missions of Gregory "Pappy" Boyington. Seen here with the actor who portrayed him, Robert Conrad, Pappy flew for the Marines in the South Pacific. His squadron of "misfits and screwballs" — as the opening credits declared them — came off as more invincible and mythological on the small screen.
The network thought Tony Musante was bluffing. The actor said he only wanted to do one season of his gritty cop series, Toma. Producers figured it was a negotiating tactic. It was not. Musante bailed and the show recast and retooled into the more traditional action hour Baretta. The original Toma had more of a Serpico vibe, based on the career of a real New Jersey detective, Dave Toma, who made cameos throughout the series. Toma splashed violence across the screen and dealt with heavy urban issues. Baretta sanded off the rough edges, renaming the character Tony Baretta and making him a master of disguise with a pet cockatoo.
The made-for-TV movie that served as the pilot for this drama went under the unwieldy title The Wedsworth-Townsend Act. Wisely, creator Jack Webb shortened it to the punchy Emergency! — complete with an exclamation point. In 1970, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed The Wedsworth-Townsend Paramedic Act, establishing the first accredited paramedic training program in America. Emergency! popularized and promoted the very concept of EMS — still a novel concept in 1972. Just as he did with police files on Dragnet, Webb asked writers to mine fire stations' logbooks for true incidents to dramatize on television.
Like Emergency!, Kojak premiered under a clunky title — The Marcus-Nelson Murders. The TV movie was based on the grisly Wylie-Hoffert murders, a.k.a. the Career Girls Murders, the case that lead to the establishment of Miranda Rights in the Supreme Court. Telly Savalas's character, Theo Kojak, was a mishmash of real detectives who worked the Wylie-Hoffert murder case.
The Love Boat
Yes, The Love Boat was inspired by a true story. The romantic comedy was adapted from the memoirs of Jeraldine Saunders, a book she called The Love Boats, plural, chronicling her time as "the first full-time female cruise director." Thus, Julie McCoy (Lauren Tewes) was based on Saunders. Saunders later became an astrologer.
Obviously, the Korean War happened. No secret there. And you know M*A*S*H was first an acclaimed movie, directed by Robert Altman. The dramedy franchise was based on the autobiographical novel of H. Richard Hornberger, who wrote under the alias Richard Hooker. Hornberger served in Korea with the 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. He even called his tent "The Swamp." Oh, and like Hawkeye, he went to Maine after the war.
Believe it or not, the UFO show was based on reality. Another creation of Jack Webb (see Emergency! above), Project U.F.O. again utilized the producer's penchant for "ripped from the case files" tales, in this instance the United States Air Force study of unidentified flying objects labeled "Project Blue Book." As in reality, many of the investigations ended up having mundane explanations — but some were left ambiguously in the realm of the eerie.
Creator Earl Hamner Jr. transformed his youth in Schuyler in Nelson County, Virginia, into the loves and lives of the Walton clan on Walton's Mountain. Hamner documented his upbringing in the books Spencer's Mountain (1961) and The Homecoming: A Novel About Spencer's Mountain (1970), stories that were first adapted into a film with Henry Fonda, Spencer's Mountain (1963).
Welcome Back, Kotter
Barbarino, Freddie, Epstein, and Horshack existed in real life. They were classmates of Gabe Kaplan at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, the same school shown in the opening credits of his sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter. Kaplan turned his school days into a comedy routine (and eventual album) he called "Holes and Mellow Rolls." Kaplan was a remedial student himself, which is how he met kids like Ray Barbarino, Freddie "Furdy" Peyton, and Epstein "The Animal." The names were slightly changed for TV. Oh, and the insult, "Up your hole with a Mello roll!" was softened to the catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose!"
WKRP in Cincinatti
Sitcom creator Hugh Wilson based most WKRP employees on real radio pros. Andy Travis was based on Mikel "Captain Mikey" Herrington, a pioneer of the album-rock radio format at San Jose's KOME and Los Angeles' KMET. (He was also the voice of Sears.) Atlanta disc jockey "Skinny" Bobby Harper inspired Dr. Johnny Fever (as did Howard Hesseman's real-life experience as a DJ). Harper worked at WQXI with Bill Dial, a writer for WKRP in Cincinnati. The station owners, the Carlsons, were based on WQXI's manager Jerry Blum.