"Smiles, everyone! Smiles!"
Fantasy Island (1977-84), a Spelling-Goldberg Production for Columbia Pictures Television, was an ingenious if tame and obviously-executed concept, cut from the same cloth as co-producer Aaron Spelling's concurrent hit The Love Boat, here fused with a kind of benign Delos, the fantasy-indulging adult amusement park of Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1976). The Love Boat and Fantasy Island aired Saturday nights, at 9:00 and 10:00pm respectively, and though hardly great art, filled a certain entertainment void. There was certainly nothing like these two shows on television at the time, and they appealed to audiences for a variety of reasons.
The Complete Second Season placed 22nd in the ratings and handily won its timeslot, despite formidable alternating competition from CBS: Dallas and The CBS Saturday Night Movies. Like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island rose and fell on the personalities of its big- and small-time guest stars more than its innocuous scripts. I was surprised to see Orville H. Hampton credited as Fantasy Island's story editor (he also wrote many of the season's scripts). Hampton (1917-1997) was an extremely prolific writer of very low-budget B-movies of the 1950s and early-'60s, first at Lippert and later often in association with producer Robert E. Kent and director Edward L. Cahn. (Many of these cheap films are now available on DVD.) Those Hampton scripts are similar to his Fantasy Island teleplays: workmanlike genre efforts, the best ones exhibiting some cleverness, others ordinary if functional, and a few wretchedly bad. That pretty much sums up this series, too.
Shout! Factory's set has no extras but the transfers are solid and accompanied by amusing menu screens designed by someone with obvious affection for the show. All 25 episodes are here, about 19 hours worth, on four single-sided, dual-layered discs. Episodes don't appear to be edited or time-compressed.
The program takes place on vast but mysterious island in the Pacific where, usually for a bank-breaking fee, arrangements are made for guests to live out their fantasies, often to find closure or answers to deep personal problems or ambitions. The second season opener is a typical example: in the "A" story (i.e., straight melodrama), a Vietnam vet (David Birney) long presumed dead wants to be reunited with his wife (Lynda Day George) and son, the former having since remarried. Because he was badly injured and extensive plastic surgery was done to his face, he conveniently befriends them first, without them realizing who he is. In the "B" story (these often being broadly comic), a middle-aged nebbish (Arte Johnson) becomes a sheik with an enormous harem of gorgeous women (including Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson), one of who turns out to be a meek co-worker (Georgia Engel) with unrequited designs on him.
Hosting all this is the man apparently in charge: avuncular, refined Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalbán), aided by his diminutive assistant, Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize). Each episode opens with the guests arriving by seaplane ("De plane! De plane!" Tattoo famously and excitedly announces over the opening credits) and as guests are busy getting leied by Polynesian types strumming ukuleles and dolling out Mai Tais and Piña Coladas, in naked exposition Mr. Roarke explains to Tattoo each guest's backstory. "Who is she, boss? She looks very sad and lonely." Apparently Tattoo misses all those staff meetings.
Aerial shots of the island during the credits were photographed over Kauai, Hawaii, but the openings and closings to each episode, including the exterior for Mr. Roarke's headquarters, were photographed at the very inland Los Angeles Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia. The main building, in reality the Queen Anne Cottage, in 2012 still looks much as it did on the show 35 years ago. The rest of Fantasy Island was shot on stages at Warner Bros. and the Columbia Ranch nearby. (Columbia and Warner Bros. were sharing studio facilities during this period.) The illusion is unconvincing by modern standards but effectively fooled audiences then, much as The Love Boat appeared to be filmed entirely aboard a real cruise ship.
Montalbán and Villechaize are a big part of the show's appeal, with Montalbán a charming if evasive puppet master, often manipulating guests away from their original fantasies into something more substantive and ultimately satisfying. Tattoo, meanwhile, is mostly there for comic relief, in lighthearted scenes with Montalbán quite similar to the byplay between Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and his more garrulous partners (Ben Alexander, Harry Morgan) on Dragnet.
Surprisingly though, the program occasionally touches upon Tattoo's psychological struggles as a "little person." (Villechaize himself preferred the politically incorrect term "midget," even referring to himself on the show as such.) Undoubtedly cast after playing a similar if more sinister role in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Villechaize is funny and his interaction with Montalbán displays real warmth and affection. He was a genuinely good actor, much more than the one-joke, pint-sized Frenchman with the nasally accent he's generally remembered as.
Montalbán finally became a bona fide star with Fantasy Island, though he'd been kicking around Hollywood since the 1940s, first as an almost-leading man at MGM - you owe it to yourself to catch him in Border Incident (1949), a great, uncompromising film noir - then as a perennial guest star on innumerable sixties and early seventies TV shows. Memorable performances as sympathetic circus owner Armando in Escape from- (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), box-office hits, seem to have bolstered the caliber of his parts. Soon after he made a high-profile guest villain appearance on Columbo (in 1976) and around that time began extolling the virtues of Chrysler Cordoba's "rich Corinthian leather" in a long-running series of TV commercials. If ever there were fatal typecasting roles, Mr. Roarke and those TV spots were it, but he hit the bulls-eye again and again, delivering outstanding, larger-than-life performances battling Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek - The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988). The former debuted while Fantasy Island was still on the air and the characters couldn't have been more different. Montalbán had a field day.
Some audiences, this reviewer included, watched The Love Boat and Fantasy Island chiefly because the shows sometimes featured classical Hollywood actors or early TV stars in juicy, late-career roles. One second season episode of Fantasy Island, for instance, guest stars Phil Silvers as an aspiring if aging Vaudevillian whose adult children want to stick him in an old age home. It was one of the great comedian's last roles, and while the script ain't much, Silvers's presence alone elevates it. (It's also interesting for another reason: Silvers had screen-tested for the film version of The Sunshine Boys; this episode hints at what his performance might have been like.)
Among the 1930s-'60s stars appearing in Season Two episodes: Vivian Blaine, Rory Calhoun, Cameron Mitchell, Maurice Evans, Celeste Holm, Janis Paige, Gloria DeHaven, Barry Sullivan, Don DeFore, Anne Francis, John Ericson, Ray Milland, Red Buttons, Samantha Eggar, France Nuyen, Troy Donahue, Nancy Kwan, Connie Stevens, Cyd Charisse, Barbara Rush, Phil Harris, Carol Lynley, Stuart Whitman, Yvonne De Carlo, Cornel Wilde, Marie Windsor, Peter Lawford, Mamie Van Doren, Cesar Romero, Annette Funicello, Janet Leigh, Lew Ayres, Guy Madison, Eleanor Parker, Joan Blondell, Robert Morse, and Roddy McDowall.
You like TV stars? How about Sonny Bono, Dan Rowan, Diana Canova, James Luisi, John Astin, Desi Arnaz Jr., Shelley Fabares, Darren McGavin, Ken Berry, Steve Forrest, Meredith MacRae, Peter Mark Richman, Jonathan Frakes, Christopher George, Greg Morris, Danny Bonaduce, Mary Ann Mobley, Paul Sand, Barbi Benton, Bert Convoy, Peter Graves, Lisa Loring, Michelle Pfeiffer (then), Bobby Troup, Lloyd Bochner, Eva Gabor, George Maharis, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Breck, Sherry Jackson, Jayne Meadows, Hugh O'Brian, Michelle Lee, Diana Muldaur, Forrest Tucker, Lisa Hartman, Don Knotts, Abe Vigoda, Larry Storch, Juliet Mills, Rue McClanahan, Al Molinaro, Scott and Jimmy Baio, Joanna Barnes, Tracey Gold, and half the casts of
The Brady Bunch (Robert Reed, Florence Henderson, Maureen McCormick, Eve Plumb) and The Love Boat (Jill Whelan, Fred Grandy, and Ted Lange).
Also appearing are not-easily-classifiable character actors, singers, and other types included Sid Haig, Jack Carter, David Opatoshu, Leigh Taylor-Young, Jeff Corey, Pamela Franklin, Brett Halsey, Luke Askew, John Fiedler, Ellen Geer, Dan Seymour, Joe Mantell, Nehemiah Persoff, Nita Talbot, Jack Elam, Hans Conried, John McIntire, Chuck McCann, John Saxon, Doodles Weaver, Khigh Dhiegh, James Shigeta, Lola Falana, Douglas Fowley, Michael Parks, Toni Tennile, Morgan Woodward, Billy Barty, Regis Philbin, and Kim Richards.
That's a lot of talent, real and dubious, crammed into these things.
Beyond the scripts, Fantasy Island's other big weakness was that it cops out big time avoiding any explanation of how fantasies are staged and just how Mr. Roarke effortlessly manages to pull them off. Part of Westworld's and Futureworld's appeal was being able to go "behind the scenes" to see how their park's computer-controlled android population was maintained and operated. There's a hint of genuine fantasy in Fantasy Island to Mr. Roarke's machinations, but it's always implied and never explicitly stated. He's able to do the impossible not for any reasoned explanation, but rather simply because otherwise there'd be no show. More effort and ingenuity on the writers' part would have helped.
Video & Audio
The video transfers look very good. The show was filmed in bright, primary colors in standard 35mm and hold up quite nicely. The region 1 DVDs have no subtitle or alternate language options, but are closed-captioned and the English mono audio is clear and strong. No Extra Features.
Frequently dopey but fun for its casts and two regular stars, Fantasy Island - The Complete Second Season is more enjoyable than it ought to be and enthusiastically Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.