The Notorious Television Versions of Universal Studios

In 1984, David Lynch’s ill-fated adaptation of Dune was released in theaters to poor reviews and disappointing box office. Given that Lynch had shot about a half-hour of material that was cut from the theatrical release, distributor Universal Studios and their partners at MCA Television prepared a four-hour TV version for syndicated broadcast in 1988. Lynch took an “Alan Smithee” directing credit (a then-standard pseudonym) for this version that was made without his approval, and also went a step further when requesting a pseudonym for his screenwriter credit, insisting on being called “Judas Booth,” a combination of Judas Iscariot and John Wilkes Booth. On the surface, this seems like a childish overreaction from a filmmaker responding to his movie being recut for TV, as numerous films were in those days. Yet upon examination of that edit, as well as many of the TV versions Universal and MCA TV were behind during the ‘70s and ‘80s, it seems Lynch had cause to be so incensed.

The “TV version” is a mostly outdated trend of theatrical films being reedited for network television broadcast, a relic from a time when home video was still in its infancy and streaming over the internet was a pipe dream. Most TV versions, as the disclaimer went, were “edited for content and formatted to fit your screen,” and were either prepared by the studio or the networks themselves in a fairly standard fashion—cutting any nudity and excessive gore, and either dubbing or simply dialing out profane dialogue. Oftentimes this would leave films running short of a two-hour time slot, so editors would replace trimmed scenes with deleted material, making these versions unofficial, lightly alternate cuts. Universal MCA’s TV versions, on the other hand, tended to be flat-out revisions unsupervised by the original filmmakers, not only edited for content with unused footage put back in, but in many cases with new material added to either panderingly clarify characters and plot points or change the theme, tone, and pace of a movie altogether.

Discovering these TV cuts is fairly easy, as many of them are available either on YouTube or on physical media releases as extras, and some still air as part of broadcast syndication packages, but who was responsible for them and why is still largely a mystery. In the 1970’s, Universal/MCA TV was a result of a then-recent merger, with the TV division highly lucrative for the company as the largest provider of television shows to networks at that time. As filmmaker Don Coscarelli observes in his book “True Indie,” Universal had an “immense editorial factory with literally dozens of post-production crews laboring round the clock to create “product.” As such, there were many editors working at MCA TV as studio employees, meaning that work on TV edits of the company’s theatrical films didn’t necessarily need to be credited—perhaps the studio was using the broad banner of “edited for content” as a loophole with which to do as they pleased with these versions, passing them off as the genuine article.

One verifiable name to pin a few of these TV versions on is Gene Palmer. Palmer was a lifelong editor for MCA, beginning his career at their old Revue Studios in the ‘50s and continuing on through the Universal merger. When NBC sought to air Universal’s 1974 disaster film Earthquake over two nights on their “The Big Event” prime-time showcase, rather than add in deleted material from the movie, Universal gave Palmer the go-ahead to create additional scenes to fill the runtime. What Palmer ended up with can politely be called a hatchet job, as he shot a few scenes with stars Marjoe Gortner and Victoria Principal that merely reiterate their subplot, a scene with the supporting characters played by Jesse Vint and Michael Richardson that recontextualizes their deaths in order to make Gortner’s character more villainous, and an entirely new subplot that sees a married couple on an airplane (Debralee Scott and Sam Chew) barely miss the earthquake and spend a lot of time editorializing on the film’s events. In between, Palmer makes a series of bizarre choices that don’t just remove network-unfriendly material but seem to attempt to “improve” the effect of the film by looping and recutting most of John Williams’ score cues, along with adding needless ADR lines of dialogue to clarify character motivation and plot points.

The TV version of Earthquake still had more or less the same story as the theatrical release, something that can’t be said for Palmer and MCA/Universal’s TV version of another Charlton Heston-led disaster film, 1976’s Two-Minute Warning. When preparing the movie for broadcast in 1979, NBC made it clear that they had issues with the film’s entire plot, not just a scene or two, as it was a movie about an anonymous, motiveless sniper menacing a crowded football stadium. This time, Palmer wouldn’t add a handful of scenes, but would instead end up reshooting about 50% of the entire film. This resulted in his only on-screen credit for work on a TV version, with his name replacing original director Larry Peerce’s. In addition, the writer of this new material, Francesca Turner, was added to the “screenplay by” credit, while the new actors (including James Olsen and Joanna Pettet) were added to the cast list. Palmer even managed to wrangle original star Heston to return to shoot two brief new scenes to help fit the new material into the old footage, with Heston wearing a mis-matched toupee to add insult to injury. Now Two-Minute Warning was about a gang of art thieves who commit a heist during a championship football game at a museum across the street, hiring a sniper to fire (non-lethally!) into the crowd as a distraction. In numerous ways, the TV version of Two-Minute Warning is not at all the same film that was seen in theaters.

While Universal’s TV versions never got as egregiously dishonest as that again (at least not to this writer’s knowledge), Palmer and Turner—allegedly—continued to work their magic on TV edits throughout the ‘80s. They not only bungled Lynch’s Dune (beginning it with a near 20-minute introduction to Herbert’s world that over-explained the plot via voiceover and illustrations), they also came up with some creative dialogue replacements for De Palma’s Scarface (“this town is like a great big chicken, just waiting to be plucked”), gave each character in John Carpenter’s The Thing an introductory voiceover with character descriptions (and lessened the impact of its ending), concluded David Cronenberg’s Videodrome with a pan over a bizarre illustration while dialogue from the film was repeated, and recut Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness to make it seem like the whole film was the protagonists’ dream. All of these TV edits leave a bizarre legacy of a man (or a man and woman, or very possibly a team of men and women) who for some reason were given creative license to change these films as they saw fit. Since it was implied that these TV versions were the films as originally released rather than new, shoddy cuts, they not only created a series of Mandela effects (in some cases, this was the only way these movies could be seen before home video became more ubiquitous), but took the filmmakers’ trust in the studio and betrayed it numerous times over. “Judas Booth,” indeed.

Bill Bria is a writer, actor, songwriter, and comedian. "Sam & Bill Are Huge," his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill's acting credits include an episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and a featured part in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He lives in New York City, which hopefully will be the setting for a major motion picture someday.

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